5 Ways to Support Someone Struggling with an Eating Disorder
Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be confusing, and even downright scary at times. It’s even worse when you don’t really know how to help. What do I say? How do I act? In most cases, it’s as simple as being there and showing support. You certainly don’t have to be a mental health professional to help someone with an eating disorder. Keep reading for some simple tips that can help your loved one-- and you-- get through this together.
1. Develop an understanding of eating disorders before talking to your loved one.
Many common misconceptions can present obstacles if you are trying to support a friend who is struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are much more than dieting. There are many different types of eating disorders, each with different symptoms, and people can react to them in different ways.5 The core issue is often not weight loss or dissatisfaction with body image.¹ The intense focus on food, body shape, and weight and extreme fear of weight gain that characterize the mental state of someone with an eating disorder are usually devices that person is using to deal with other emotional problems such as anxiety or feelings of worthlessness.² Realizing your loved one’s eating disorder is more complicated than just deciding to stop dieting is crucial to supporting him or her in recovery.
2. Express concern. Speak up!
Don’t ignore the problem, even if your loved one gets upset when you try to talk about the issue. Find a time and place where the two of you can converse in private. Try inviting them for a casual walk. This situation can make your friend feel more comfortable than if you sat them down and forced the conversation.
Tell your friend that you are concerned for his or her health and express your care and support. Don’t try to force your friend to stop any harmful behaviors such as food restriction or purging. Remember that these symptoms are complicated and that the solution is not as simple as demanding that they one stop engaging in these behaviors. Instead, encourage your friend to seek professional help. You can even offer to find counseling or other services in the area for them.³
3. Be positive.
Being positive includes focusing on the aspects of your friend or relative that do not include their body or physical beauty. Emphasize personality and skills. Is your friend musically talented? Do they have a great sense of humor? Are they academically successful? Tell them! Let them know that their value is not tied to weight or physical appearance. Tell them they matter to you just because they are your friend. Ask your friend about their day and talk with them about topics other than their eating disorder. If your friend engages in negative self-talk, change the subject or emphasize their positive traits.²
4. Keep your friend in the loop.
Do your best to help your friend maintain a sense of normalcy throughout the process of their recovery. Let them know that they are your friend, with or without an eating disorder. Invite them to spend time with you and your other friends, even if the group’s plans involve food. Making a big deal out of food or eating creates tension and negatively affect their recovery.
Encourage your friend to continue participating in the activities and hobbies they enjoyed before their eating disorder. While your friend may not be able to do certain things until they are recovered, try to make sure they stay involved in as much of their former routine as possible.²
Sometimes the most important thing you can do for someone with an eating disorder, or any mental illness, is to make yourself available to listen.⁴ Let your loved one know that you are there for them if they want to talk about what they are experiencing. If you are reading this article, you are probably not a licensed mental health professional. As hard as it may be, do not try to offer advice or treat your friend’s eating disorder. Knowing that they have someone to talk to will make your friend feel less alone in facing their eating disorder. Listen actively, try to understand your friend’s perspective, and be supportive and non-judgemental. The most important thing you can do is let your friend know you love them and you are going to be their friend no matter what they are going through.