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The relationship between grief and eating disorders

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Experiencing a significant loss, whether you lose a loved one, relationship, passion, job, or home, can cause profound grief. And grief can manifest in vastly different ways, depending on the person and their situation, ranging from sadness and numbness to guilt and anger.

Understanding the relationship between grief and eating disorders, as well as between grief and eating habits in general, can be quite complex. For some, grief can lead to disordered eating behaviors as a means of coping. And for others in eating disorder recovery, grief can be a trying and triggering time that can lead to relapse. This article will discuss the effects grief can have on eating habits and eating disorder recovery.

7
 minutes read
Last updated on 
April 10, 2023
Grief and eating disorders
In this article

What is grief?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define grief as a “normal response to a loss during or after a disaster or other traumatic event.”1

When you hear the word grief, your brain likely goes to the death of a loved one first. But people can grieve all types of losses, such as job loss, displacement, break-ups, friends moving away, financial loss, injuries, and drastic changes to routine and stability. 

Feelings associated with grief may include:1

  • Distress
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Denial
  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of appetite

Grief and eating disorder behaviors

Grief is distressing and can be extremely overwhelming, and the severity of distress can cause significant emotional instability and disturbances in a person’s life. However, coping mechanisms can help people work through their loss and get to a place of acceptance. 

But, grief and eating disorder behaviors can be closely linked, as not all coping skills are healthy or adaptive. For example, a common method of coping for grieving individuals is through food, whether that involves binge eating episodes or restricting food intake, and exercise, which may include compulsively working out. And while they may provide some temporary relief from unwanted emotions, like depression or sadness, these coping skills can ultimately lead to many problems. Not to mention depression and eating habit changes, such as emotional eating or even night eating, can complicate your health, leading to disordered eating behaviors. 

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Common behaviors

Disordered eating involves a pattern of abnormal eating behaviors that don’t meet the criteria for a clinical eating disorder but can be problematic and harmful. Examples of common disordered eating behaviors someone may use to cope with grief include:

  • Binge eating
  • Skipping meals
  • Fasting
  • Counting calories
  • Cutting out an entire food group
  • Avoiding a macronutrient, such as carbohydrates or fats
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Using laxatives or diuretics
  • Using diet pills

People who are grieving may feel out of control or that they’ve lost their sense of control. Fear of losing control can be a risk factor for engaging in disordered eating behaviors, as eating disorders are often not about body image but rather control.2 Fixating on a strict food or exercise routine can give a grieving person a false sense of control over their life.

Regardless of the loss someone has experienced, disordered eating behaviors can escalate into a full-blown eating disorder, especially in vulnerable individuals who are already at risk due to various biological, psychological, and sociological factors.

Grief can trigger an eating disorder relapse

If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, such as bulimia, binge eating disorder, or anorexia, grief can be a trigger for an eating disorder relapse, as it can cause severe psychological distress and stress. Feelings of grief can cause someone to fall into old eating patterns that are comfortable to them and have historically been a way to cope with negative emotions. 

Grief is unavoidable no matter who you are; it’s a part of life we all must go through. But knowing how grief can contribute to an eating disorder relapse can help you find extra support during this tragic time. 

During the grieving process, you may want to seek out support by:
  • Attending peer support group meetings
  • Beginning therapy again or increasing the frequency of sessions
  • Reaching out to trusted family and friends
  • Attending group counseling

If you still need additional help, you can enroll in an eating disorder treatment program again, whether it’s a virtual program, partial hospitalization, or inpatient. Returning to a treatment program doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that treatment didn’t work the first time around. It simply means that you need more support from eating disorder professionals right now.

Grieving the loss of an eating disorder while in treatment

Many people recovering from an eating disorder, especially those in the early stages, find themselves grieving the loss of their eating disorder. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t happy about getting help and making positive changes in their life.

Online eating disorder treatment may be a good option for those dealing with grief in their recovery.

More so, it means they’re mourning the loss of the behaviors that comforted them in times of distress. Even though their eating disorder was causing significant problems in their life, they may still need time to adjust to a life free of disordered eating behaviors that had become a significant component of their life.  

Likewise, some people in recovery may express that they don’t know who they are without their eating disorder, given that so much of their time, energy, thoughts, and behaviors are centered around food and/or exercise. This loss of identity can lead to grief.

It’s important to understand that it is okay to grieve your eating disorder, however destructive it may have been. It’s a normal part of the recovery process, and you can navigate this grief with the help of your eating disorder treatment team.

How to cope with grief without engaging in disordered eating

If you have lost a loved one, you may feel like your entire world has come crashing down. You may be unable to function and may feel a loss of control in your life. As a result, making even the smallest decisions can be challenging. But you don’t need to grieve alone—your support system can provide you with a safe space while you grieve.

Here are some healthy ways to cope with your grief about losing a loved one:1

  • Reach out to trusted friends and family members.
  • Ask friends and family to share stories about your lost loved one.
  • Ask for help planning the funeral or celebration of life.
  • Create rituals to help grieve, such as making a virtual memory book that friends and family can contribute to.
  • Prepare a favorite meal of your lost loved one, or plant a tree in their honor.
  • Seek out grief counseling and other mental health services.
  • Attend support groups.

Other forms of grief may involve different coping strategies, such as:1

  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings of grief
  • Create new rituals that allow you to stay connected to loved ones 
  • Find a way to express your grief, such as writing, talking to loved ones, listening to or creating music, making art, gardening, or other activities
  • Practice mindfulness as a way to stay in the present and avoid worrying about the future

How to support your grieving child

Grief is such an overwhelming and all-encompassing phenomenon. Knowing how to support someone else during intense grief can be challenging. If your child has experienced a significant loss, here’s what you can do to help them:1

  • Ask them how they feel and let them know they can talk to you if they need to
  • Offer age-appropriate answers to their questions about loss and grief
  • Encourage creative ways to express grief, such as painting, dancing, writing, or making music
  • Spend time with your child, engaging in activities that make them happy
  • Teach them how to meditate and cultivate a practice together
  • Teach them breathing and calming strategies
  • Practice self-care so you can model healthy coping skills for your child

You may also want to seek professional support for your child, such as grief counseling.

Find out how Within can help your loved one recover from their eating disorder.
Learn more >

Eating disorder relapse warning signs

If your child is recovering from an eating disorder, it’s important to know the potential signs of relapse so that you can seek treatment for them as soon as possible. Potential warning signs of an eating disorder relapse are similar to eating disorder symptoms and include:

  • Isolating themself from you and other loved ones
  • Hiding information from you and others in the family
  • Checking their appearance in the mirror
  • Exercising excessively
  • Eating alone, such as in their bedroom
  • Checking their weight
  • Skipping meals
  • Seeming guilty after eating
  • Appearing depressed or sad
  • Appearing irritable, stressed, or anxious
  • Experiencing disturbances to their sleep patterns

As you can see, many of these relapse signs overlap with manifestations of grief, especially the mental health symptoms such as depression or anxiety. Because of this, checking in with your child about how they’re feeling and what sort of support they need can be helpful.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 6). Grief and loss. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 14, 2023.
  2. Froreich, F. V., Vartanian, L. R., Grisham, J. R., & Touyz, S. W. (2016). Dimensions of control and their relation to disordered eating behaviours and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Journal of Eating Disorders, 4(14). 

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