There are many ways to support a loved one who is struggling with anorexia nervosa, and working towards eating disorder recovery.
Often, many individuals will support a loved one prior to and during treatment, but post-treatment is a crucial time for sufferers.
Typically, this is when they are most vulnerable to setbacks and relapses within their disorder.
Being able to know when and how to assist can help keep your loved one on their recovery journey.
What To Do and Say
Be able to talk openly and honestly with your loved one about their eating disorder and recovery. It is being able to share how you feel in a loving and compassionate way, your fears and concerns, as well as hopes for them.
Being an open, honest, and non-judgemental place for your loved one to share is an essential part of recovery . They are coming from a place where anorexia is about secrets. Being able to open up and share is a part of letting go of the disorder.
Recognize your own limits as well as you provide support for your friend. Some may be that you are not able to sit with them at meals but can keep them engaged in activities.
There may be aspects of the eating disorder that you are not comfortable with or able to support. Own this limitation and share that with your friend.
Also, be patient with your friend and yourself. Recovery is a long process and comes with setbacks and sometimes relapses. It is normal and all part of the journey. Encouraging your friend is also important . Encourage them to share concerns with their treatment team.
Encouragement can be when they are feeling a lack of motivation or progress, and you help them stay on task. Encouragement can also be attending family groups or sessions as a support person to better understand anorexia nervosa and the eating disorder recovery process.
Gaining education for yourself is essential for understanding anorexia and eating disorders. First, eating disorders are not just about food, typically it is underlying issues that drive the behaviors. The way loved ones who suffer talk to them self about their body, personality, and food/dieting is a major part of the disease .
Being able to help your friend connect to others who support them is important in the recovery process. Help your loved one stay connected to normal activities as much as possible. Even if your friend declines an invite, keep asking.
Another aspect is to act normally around food or meals if you are with your friend. This helps the experience seem more normal and helps the anorexic sufferer feel like others are not avoiding situations due to the eating disorder.
Many sufferers say that they want to feel normal and ‘fit in’ with others. Just enjoying your friend for who they are, rather than focusing on the eating disorder, is a huge part of supporting them.
What Not to Say and Do
Knowing how to say no to your friend is also part of the supportive process. It can be difficult, but being able to say no to behaviors that encourage the eating disorder is important . One example would be if your friend wants to run early in the morning, or only buying certain foods or ‘safe foods.’
Try to stay away from starting sentences with ‘stop doing this or that” is also important. It may feel like a demand or parenting to your friend, and they may begin to shut you out.
Approaching them if you notice behaviors creeping in, is to be able to say, “I am worried about you because I see that you are engaging in some worrisome eating disorder behaviors” is a good way to start. Encourage your friend to set an appointment with their treatment team if one is not scheduled and talk with their counselor and dietitian about behavioral concerns.
Avoid comments around weight or commenting on body changes, whether weight loss or gain. It can come across in a different way to the eating disorder sufferer. Being able to use phrases such as, “I am happy that you are taking better care of yourself” is a great way to support your friend.
Be aware of your own weight and body comments as it can have a negative effect on the person’s thoughts and perceptions about them self. Being aware of how you talk about yourself, your body, and food rituals or behaviors is important when around someone is struggling with anorexia.
Staying away from labels of things or people being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is also an important part of support. Typically the anorexic learns through treatment that things and people are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ especially food. Being able to remove labels is an essential skill for your friend to learn and master .
Being able to support your friend with anorexia nervosa, can feel overwhelming at times. The best way to help your friend is to become educated on anorexia and treatment. You can attend family groups with your friend, get a recommended reading list for loved ones, or just look on the internet.
Talking with your friend about how they would like support from you is also a positive step. Knowing what they would like from you and what they expect will help you know how to best be there for them in recovery.
Know yourself and watch what you say around your friend. Keep food normalized and do not criticize push, or react to what your friend eats. Help them feel more normal and show them that they are not seen for their eating disorder.
Approaching your friend in a caring and concerned way if you see them slipping is a supportive behavior as well. Remember that your friend is still your friend and wants to have a normal, fun friendship with you as they recover.
About the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.
Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.
References: How to Help a Loved One • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved July 02, 2017, from http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/how-to-help-a-loved-one/
 Concerned About a Friend or Loved One? (n.d.). Retrieved July 02, 2017, from https://www.anred.com/hlp.html
 T. (n.d.). How To Support a Friend. Retrieved July 2, 2017, from https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/assets/Uploads/Factsheets/How-to-Support-a-Friend.pdf
Facts Sheet Publication
 Your Loved One Has An ED. (n.d.). Retrieved July 02, 2017, from http://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/your-loved-one-has-an-ed/
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on September 23, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 23, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com