The importance of community during eating disorder recovery

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Often, stories of eating disorder recovery focus on the individual, what they have achieved, and how they have grown and healed. While celebrating these stories is a vital part of the recovery space, it’s also important to recognize how relationships and community play a role in eating disorder recovery.

Treatment and recovery don’t occur in a vacuum—the connections recovering individuals make are invaluable to the healing process. A solid community of people in recovery can provide each other with validation, support, guidance, and a place to process difficult emotions, all while lifting each other up in times of triumph.

Last updated on 
October 4, 2021
In this article

How community can help recovering individuals heal

Humans are social beings who thrive on connections, camaraderie, collaboration, and shared experiences. Community is an integral part of eating disorder recovery in which people often find the language they need to recover and heal. It may also be the first time they feel that their specific struggles with things like body image, low self-esteem, self-acceptance, and stigma are reflected in the stories around them.

Being surrounded by people who understand each other’s challenges and struggles can help combat feelings of alienation, isolation, and loneliness, as well as improve mental health. Although the benefits of community are countless, here are three major advantages of having a support system during eating disorder recovery. (1)

1. A sense of purpose

An eating disorder community can provide recovering individuals with a sense of purpose. Everyone has different strengths they can offer the group. Maybe one person is skilled at letting others vent without offering unsolicited advice, while another is a great accountability partner.

Perhaps someone else is the cheerleader of the group, the person everyone can always count on to celebrate even the smallest of successes and remember important dates and anniversaries. These various roles within the community can provide people in recovery with a purpose by bettering the lives of those around them. And improving other people’s lives can give their life meaning.

2. Receiving and providing support

Isolation often accompanies eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. Individuals recovering from these conditions may feel alone in their struggle, especially if they have no one they can rely on.

Support is an undeniable benefit of having a strong eating disorder community. When an individual is a member of a community, they have people they can turn to in times of need—whether they want to vent, need advice, are asking for a favor, or are seeking someone who can relate. Simply knowing they have a support system in place can help those recovering from an eating disorder feel cared for and loved.

3. A feeling of belonging and reducing isolation

A community offers a sense of belonging for people who have likely felt like they didn’t fit in anywhere, felt shame, or were disconnected from others. In an eating disorder community, everyone identifies as being a part of that group, which can make people feel accepted, can reduce shame, and connected to others. People are free to be their true selves within a supportive community, without fears of being judged, shamed, or shunned.

How we foster community at Within Health

At Within Health, we understand the importance of community during recovery from an eating disorder and encourage and prioritize new relationships. Through our virtual care program, we aim to foster the same camaraderie and interconnectedness patients receive at an in-person facility, but from the comfort of the patient’s home.

Many virtual care programs for eating disorders offer individual sessions with various providers, such as therapists and nurses, without emphasizing group sessions and community. Conversely, Within Health prioritizes a milieu, or physical and psychological treatment space in which patients feel they are a part of something. Care through our program is integrated, comprehensive, and community-oriented.

We provide many opportunities to form new bonds and connections, such as:

  • Group meals focusing on connection, sharing in the healing journey, reestablishing the enjoyment of eating, and mindfulness
  • Evidence based group psychotherapy, such as dialectical behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and family therapy
  • Weekly alumni support meetings for patients who have completed the program and want continued support in a safe space

Forming a bond with a care partner

Patients also work closely with a care partner, or mentor within their eating disorder program who provides them with encouragement, support, and guidance. A care partner is there to help patients implement behavioral changes they need to recover from an eating disorder. Other benefits of a care partner include helping:

  • Ground patients during stressful or triggering moments
  • Working on experiential opportunities where patients can put into practice the new action items they want to work on during treatment
  • Improve their partner’s interpersonal effectiveness and ability to attend to relationships
  • Develop clarification around values and treatment goals
  • Prioritize how the patient spends each day
  • Execute recovery plans, including cooking, meal prep, and other self-care practices
  • Provide support when patients need a check-in

Ongoing support through our alumni program

When patients complete our treatment program, we remain in contact with them for as long as they wish. Recovery is a lifelong process, and it’s important to us that we are still there for our patients well after treatment has ended. This means patients can continue accessing the Within Health app long after treatment. The app contains resources and assignments they completed during their program. They are also invited to participate in our free, ongoing alumni support group that meets on a weekly basis.

Attending an alumni support group gives patients the opportunity to continue building upon relationships they developed during eating disorder treatment. Members of this group can share relapse prevention tips and coping strategies, as well as celebrate victories.

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.

Resources

1. Gilbert, S. (2019). The Importance of Community and Mental Health. National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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