Finding out that someone you know has been diagnosed with an eating disorder can be extremely trying. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), people with anorexia experience “a six fold increase in mortality compared to the general population” and typically die of starvation, substance abuse, and suicide. But if you are not familiar with the disorder, it may be difficult for you to empathize with your loved one and make sense of why this has occurred. You may even ask yourself, “Why doesn’t he or she just eat?”
Unfortunately, eating disorders run deep and are much more complicated than mere control over food. The person may be experiencing mental and emotional turmoil from within. Here are 5 tips to help you care for someone who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
1. Gain some understanding.
Most people love food and enjoy their meals, but people with eating disorders dread these instances. Whereas most addictions rely on substances like drugs or alcohol to relieve the negative emotions of daily life, eating disorders use denial, control, or excess consumption of food. Food becomes the substance that the individual controls. The restriction or over indulgence of food has its own effects on a cognitive level, each with its own apparent “benefits.” Whether it is for an overall numb feeling or for an instant and satisfying gratification, the sensations their habit brings become irresistible. It is essential to understand this if your loved one suffers from an eating disorder.
2. Be patient.
Recovering from an eating disorder or any addiction will probably be the hardest time in the individual’s life. The withdrawal symptoms, even when there are no drugs or alcohol to detox, can be extremely difficult.
In substance addiction, people have to abstain from their substance of choice and face life sober on a daily basis. Since humans have to consume food to live, individuals with eating disorders have to quit their habit of not eating or overeating and face their issues with food about three to six times a day.
Therefore, remember to be extremely patient. Do not get frustrated at meals, when your loved one struggles or fails to accomplish their desired goals. Just know that this person is experiencing a multitude of thoughts and emotions at the moment and is battling his or her own mind to get better. If you think your loved one could use extra support, here’s a list of nearby eating disorder and food addiction treatment centers.
3. Do not comment on appearances.
Insecurities about personal looks are probably what triggered the disorder, so it’s best to avoid any comments on the person’s appearance. Saying “You look so healthy!” or “You look so much better!” should especially be avoided if the person struggles with anorexia or bulimia. If people with these types of eating disorders hear these comments, they tend to assume they have gained weight and will consider relapsing in order to become, in their eyes, more beautiful again.
Better alternatives include phrases like, “You have always been beautiful and are beautiful,” or “You are strong, I believe in you, and I know you can overcome this.” These comments can also be used for binge disorder types as these comments are general and have positive effects on every individual.
4. Stay active in the individual’s recovery.
Be there when the individual needs someone to listen. However, if you feel a professional can make the most impact, you can also have them call 866-606-0182 or any recovery hotline that can direct them to the right person. Don’t decline your loved one if he or she asks you to go with him or her to an in-person session. If possible, go every single time he or she asks you to come. The more you become involved, the more you’ll understand the disorder and be a positive influence in his or her recovery.
5. Repeat if necessary.
Do not be disappointed if your loved one has a full relapse. If it turns out that the person needs a higher level of care, go back to having patience. Remember, acknowledging a relapse and actually going back into care is still a step towards recovery. This time around, encourage the person even more as he or she may be feeling scared, depressed and as though he or she has failed.
At the end of the day, it’s important to know that your loved one’s eating disorder isn’t something you should be angry or frustrated at them about. Treat this person with overwhelming encouragement and love because, more than ever, he or she needs your support to get through a treacherous but promising journey ahead.
1. Kaye, Walter. National Eating Disorders Association. “Mortality and Eating Disorders.” Retrieved online on December 11, 2016 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/mortality-and-eating-disorders.