EDRSC Guide: How to Help a Loved One Struggling with an ED

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BY: CODY ESTERLE, CO-FOUNDER AND GENERAL COORDINATOR

As one of the founders of the Centre and developers of our training manuals, eating disorders have become a part of my daily life. The knowledge I’ve gained through my personal experience with eating disorders and their recovery, providing support, extensive training, and the responsibilities of my job, has tuned me into a different view of our diet culture, habits and general behaviours towards food. 

Triggers for eating disorders and toxic behaviors towards food and our bodies are everywhere. Resisting one’s own thoughts is an incredible battle, and in addition to that, people with eating disorders and disordered eating habits have to tune out and resist all of the societal and social pressures as well. Our society is built to encourage disordered eating, celebrating only a specific Eurocentric, cis, white, thin body which is incredibly triggering for eating disorders, but toxic for everyone. These ideas and behaviors are encouraged in the media and mirrored by peers and community. This is why having a friend, partner or anyone close to you that doesn’t reinforce these thoughts, and creates a safe, comfortable, judgment free space with you, can be an incredible part of one’s general experience of an ED, recovery, and continuing recovery.

Suffering from an eating disorder is an extremely isolating experience. Feeling safe in sharing this information, even with close friends and family, can be extremely challenging. Internalized shame, and feeling comfortable hearing  oneself express out loud the thoughts around food and their body they can’t control is a barrier in itself. As mentioned before, social media and popular culture encourage and aggravate toxic behaviors, which influence the social environments of someone going through it. Reactions can vary between undermining and encouraging behaviors and results, and overwhelming fear from the reality of an eating disorder. Supporting someone through this is extremely important, but challenging. Using my experience and knowledge as General Coordinator of the EDRSC and the extensive trainings I have gone through and collaboratively created, I have drafted what I believe are important things to keep in mind when providing support to being a part of someone’s life with an eating disorder, or generally coping with disordered eating and toxic thoughts around food and body image. These are not strict guidelines, and as mentioned below, the most important part of support is asking someone directly what they want and need.

1. Understand it is a non linear journey and recovery:

Some days will be really positive and show a lot of progress, and others will be much harder. That is normal and okay. Recovery is not linear. Remind your friend of that, and remind yourself. It is okay for them to not be okay, and it is not a step backwards. It is ok for them to not always think and say the same things.

2. Communication:

At different stages of recovery, people have very different boundaries, shame and comfort around food, certain social situations and loved ones. It is often difficult, but incredibly helpful, to be a person that your friend feels comfortable and safe communicating their internal thoughts to. Depending on the day, and what the mental space someone suffering from an eating disorder is in, they may be experiencing different ranges of emotions and stress and have different triggers around their body and food. Communicating these thoughts and triggers to someone that makes them feel safe and comfortable can significantly help their mental health and recovery. 

2a. Educating Yourself

Not putting the responsibility on the person suffering from an eating disorder to educate you and explain to you what an eating disorder means can already help you be a supportive person in their life, and reduce the misunderstanding and distress you may feel when learning what they are dealing with. There are plenty of resources online such as https://adaa.org/eating-disorders/types-of-eating-disorders to help you learn what eating disorders are. Many resources focus only on the main three eating disorders that are discussed and diagnosed. We recommend avoiding these resources and exploring ones that focus on aspects of support over clinical definitions. The main goals you should have through this education are getting familiar with symptoms and understanding their contradictory and complex elements, as to not overreact when hearing of them, and steering your mindset and beliefs away from diet culture and diverse social pressures that glorify weight loss and disordered eating. The main concepts a friend should try and learn about are, but not limited to, the eating disorder “voice”, symptoms and ambivalence towards treatment and recovery.

2b: Ask

The best way to understand what is going on through your friend’s head, and what their boundaries are, is to ask! It is incredibly helpful to create a space where someone can talk to you without feeling like you’re judging or shaming them. It’s also important to give them the space to refuse a conversation if they want. 

When asking these questions and taking a supportive role, it’s imperative to be aware that recovery is non linear, and people experiencing eating disorders also experience a significant amount of ambivalence, towards treatment, recovery and sometimes reality. Eating disorders are a coping mechanism that provide a sense of control and security. Losing that can be extremely hard, and, as a friend supporting them through that, pressuring them out of that control and security without acknowledging it can increase their shame and isolation.

Asking someone how they are feeling, what they are thinking, and what their comfort levels are with certain foods, activities and clothing, while giving them the space to not talk about it, is a great way to support them! 

ii. Asking about long term goals and needs

If your friend is at a stage of recovery where they’re slowly trying to face different challenges and phobias that they have around food, a good way to support them is to ask them what they’re currently trying to do to beat their eating disorder voice and how you can be there for them when that voice is active, stronger, or more passive. For example, if someone feels that they can add a specific type of food they always restricted to their diet, they may feel able to do this on a day where their recovery voice is stronger than their eating disorder voice, and can feel safety and comfort around that food. They may feel safe with completely including it, or with including it in small doses. They may also only feel safe in this inclusion if they can have someone they feel safe with with them. Someone to acknowledge this eating disorder voice in order to fight it. Acknowledging that voice out loud can be the first step towards fighting it. Understanding that these challenges and energy differ by day and mood also means not pressuring or shaming your friend when they don’t feel like they can beat that voice and face their challenges around their body and food.

iii. Understanding that sometimes all your friend needs is a listening ear

Pressure to change their habits and eating rules can create a sense of shame. This shame could be felt in the moment, and start being associated with a particular action or food. It could also start being associated with you, and impact their comfort in sharing their thoughts with you. This pressure can become a barrier to communication and safety. It’s not always necessary or helpful to encourage action; sometimes just validating and supporting them is all someone needs, and feels comfortable with.

3. Triggering Situations

Social settings and meal times can be especially triggering. Another way to be a supportive friend is to check in with your friend, acknowledging that these situations will be stressful, and asking them how you can support them in those moments.

4. Focus on other things than food, exercise and appearance 

Keeping the conversation away from food, exercise and appearance, outside of check-ins, can help your friend keep their focus away as well. Remind them of who they are outside of their eating disorder. 

4a. Not mirroring disordered eating and habits yourself

Outside of the avoidance of making comments on someone’s weight and habits, it is important to not focus on your own as well. Comments about your weight and exercise levels can trigger your friend and may affirm their own eating disordered thoughts.

4b. Doing activities that don’t revolve around food

Distractions and activities that don’t revolve around food can be a great way to remind someone of the life and beauty in the world that have nothing to do with food or exercise. This can help silence or distract from one’s eating disorder voice. 

4c. Talking about their non physical qualities and the future

Reminding someone that they are a beautiful and valuable human outside of what they look like and do/eat can be a really encouraging way to fight an eating disorder. People suffering from an eating disorder often focus a lot of their self worth into how they look and how much their eating or exercise habits were successful in being low or high. They are humans outside of that, and outside of their disorder. As their friend, remind them of that, and what they have to live for. Remind them of times where they didn’t have an eating disorder voice. Remind them that they could once again live without that voice one day.

5. Different stages and levels of Recovery

As mentioned previously, your friend’s experience of an eating disorder will change, as will their boundaries, thoughts and comforts. Here is a very short description of the different stages they may find themselves at in their eating disorder experience:

5a. No wish to recover or change habits 

Eating disorders are a coping mechanism. It is very difficult for people to stop using behaviors that help them cope, and develop more adaptive mechanisms to address the problems they’re facing. The loss of control one may feel when attempting to recover from an eating disorder can be highly distressing. It can be really hard to want to fight it. This doesn’t make an eating disorder any less dangerous and harmful, and there’s no perfect answer for how to support them. Our best advice is to keep reinforcing your presence, love and support to your friend, and don’t encourage or validate the eating disorder habits by mirroring or encouraging them.

5b. Moving towards recovery 

Your friend may be at a stage where they wish to fight the eating disorder and move towards recovery. There’s a lot of nuance and battling against their eating disorder voice at this stage. Being a listening and supportive ear is often the best help you can give at this stage. Validate their recovery voice when it is present. Being aware of triggers and helping them take one step at a time is a great way to support your friend. Remind your friend of all of the great things about them outside their eating disorder

5c. Active Recovery

Finally, your friend may be in active recovery. The ways to support them don’t vary much from step b; at this stage the most important thing is for them to maintain the healthier coping mechanisms they have developed. 

Thank you for reading this article and for seeking to be informed in order to help your loved one! We hope this helped you in understanding eating disorders, and the forms of support one can provide. These certainly aren’t overriding truths and won’t apply to everyone, but nevertheless we hope these tips are a good baseline to start at. Doing any of these things can be extremely impactful and helpful. It is important to always keep in mind that you and your mental health, as a friend, are very important, and to set the boundaries you need in providing support, to be a sustainable and positive presence in their life. 

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