If you’re watching someone that you love destroy their body with an eating disorder, then you know that it’s just as painful for those around them as it is for the person with the disorder.
Watching someone fight every day against their body image and struggle through a negative relationship with food is not for the faint-hearted and can be very traumatic for their loved ones. Starting a conversation about their eating habits can be a tricky topic to broach and is often met with anger, denial, frustration, or avoidance. It can be difficult for someone on the outside to understand why a person would harm themselves this way, particularly when you saw nothing wrong with their body shape or appearance to begin with. But the nature of eating disorders is irrational and often there is no concrete explanation behind the condition.
As someone on the periphery of a loved one with an eating disorder, you desperately want to help them but might be feeling a bit helpless or lost. Knowing how to help someone in that situation or making sure you say the ‘right’ things can be challenging. But wanting to help and making yourself available to support them is the first step to aid their recovery and the sooner you intervene, difficult conversation or not, the likelihood and ease of recovery is greatly increased. It may be difficult at first and your relationship with that person might become fraught for a while but stick with it. Many people now in recovery from an eating disorder say that the support of their family and friends was a key component in their journey back to health.
Early signs that someone has an eating disorder
One thing to know about eating disorders is that they are generally NOT a choice, but a complex and potentially catastrophic mental health condition. It distorts someone’s view of their appearance and body shape leading to a devastating impact on their relationship with food. If you’re worried about someone and think they’re showing the signs of an eating disorder, here are a few warning signs to keep an eye out for:
- A change in eating habits
- Not eating meals with other people
- Moving food around their plate or cutting it up into small pieces during a meal
- Behaving fidgety and anxious at mealtimes or when people are discussing food
Another sign, not necessarily related to food but still a component of an eating disorder, is someone withdrawing from social situations. If you’ve picked up that someone has been isolating themselves recently or stopping doing activities they once enjoyed, this is often a good indicator that something isn’t quite as it should be. Perhaps you’ve noticed they rush to the bathroom after consuming any food, or you’ve picked up that they go a long time without eating only to binge whatever they can find. These are other signs of eating disorders that you should keep a look out for.
As you might imagine, eating disorders often present some more physical signs that other mental health conditions don’t always show up. If someone has been restricting their food intake it’s likely that they will start to drop weight very quickly. Keep an eye on your loved one to make sure they aren’t starting to get too thin.
Unfortunately, people struggling with an eating condition often become very good at hiding it, making it really hard to pick up on until it’s too late. Keeping yourself aware of how eating disorders usually operate and the signs to look out for can help you intervene sooner rather than later before the condition has had a chance to seriously destroy someone’s health and lifestyle.
How to bring up the eating disorder conversation
You’re worried about a loved one who’s showing some signs that they are developing an eating disorder. You want to discuss it with them but aren’t sure how to start the conversation or know the right things to say. Don’t worry, Morale have put together some Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to discussing an eating disorder with a loved one.
The first thing on your list should be to learn anything and everything you can about eating disorders. That way, you can be sure that you’re as educated as possible and can offer some suggestions best suited to your loved one’s condition. Even if you’ve never experienced an eating disorder yourself, understanding how they take root in someone’s mind and destroy their life from the inside out can help you to approach the situation with empathy. Remember though that eating disorders are very personal, and each individual will have a unique experience with their disease.
Find the right time and place to bring the subject up. Eating disorders are typically very private matters and no one will want to have that conversation around other people. Take your time and find the right time and a comfortable place to bring it up. Make sure you ease into it so they don’t feel ambushed or trapped as this will only lead them to panic or deny their situation.
When you’re bringing up your concerns, use “I” statements, rather than putting all the emphasis on them. For example, you could start with “I have noticed that you aren’t eating with us anymore, I am worried about you”. Structuring your conversation this way takes the pressure off them and prevents them from feeling too criticised. If you go in on the offensive, then you’re more likely to scare them away or resort to denial or defensive behaviours. Stick to things you’ve observed and try to point out other behaviours (like avoiding all social situations or their favourite hobby) that aren’t necessarily to do with eating or their weight.
It’s important to stress throughout the conversation that you understand this eating disorder is not their fault or something they chose. Validate their feelings and struggles and acknowledge their accomplishments. It’s important to listen to your loved one as much as it is to talk to them, so let them offload if they need to as this can be very therapeutic and might even help them understand their condition a little better.
Supporting someone you care about through an eating disorder can be traumatic and take its toll on you as much as it does on them. It’s important to seek support and care for yourself as much as the person you are trying to help. There are plenty of people out there that you can talk to, whether it’s a trusted friend or family member, or a trained therapist, it’s important to keep your own mental health in check too. You can’t pour from an empty cup and supporting someone through an eating disorder can be draining and taxing, so it’s crucial to keep you cup topped up by seeking external support. You won’t be able to help your loved one as much as you can if you’re struggling too, so it’s just as crucial for their recovery that you take care of yourself as well.
Don’t get upset if your loved one lashes out or you’re met with a negative reaction. Eating disorders can be volatile conditions and warp someone’s sense of reality. They may not want to accept they have a problem or be in a state of denial of their condition. Accept that this is a probability when you approach these conversations and don’t get upset or retaliate if they don’t respond how you want them to. Don’t run away after the first encounter either, keep chipping away at it, and don’t let yourself be put off or pushed away. Deep down, a lot of people with eating disorders will be pleased that someone has noticed their struggle, even if they don’t show it so keep working at it, and don’t be put off if you get a negative reaction at first.
Try to avoid offering really simple solutions. Eating disorders are complex and often stem from a chemical imbalance in the brain, meaning “just eat more” or “you aren’t fat” unhelpful and potentially triggering. Instead, ask them how you can help or what you can do to support them. Be prepared for them to respond with nothing or dismiss the fact that they need some help but keep at it. For example, you can take some of the stress and anxiety away by offering to do their food shop or think of some meals they can have so they don’t have to make the decision themselves. If you’re offering meal support, stay calm and try to keep the conversation flowing and focused on neutral topics not relating to food. After the meal, try to engage them in distracting activities so your loved one doesn’t have time to think or act on the urge to purge.
One thing that someone who is struggling with an eating disorder might ask you to do is keep their situation a secret. Agreeing to hide their problem is a form of enabling and even though you’re supporting them in recovering, it can be more harmful than good. The more people that of someone’s eating disorder, the better it will be for their health in the long run, however uncomfortable it may feel for them. If they ask you to keep their disorder a secret, decline and let them know that you’re not comfortable doing so. As above, they may lash out or get angry but stay calm and continue to support them. Remember, it’s the eating disorder talking not your loved one.
If someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder or any other mental health condition for that matter, hook them up with Morale. It’s THE app designed to boost your mental health and keep you feeling good all day. If the worry of supporting someone through their eating disorder is weighing on your shoulders, then this is the app for you too! Each day, send positive words of support and affirmation between your closest friends and family to keep your mindset in check and ensure you’re tackling every challenge with confidence and positivity. Download the app from Google Play or Apple’s App Store to get started…
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