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How to Help a Friend with an Eating Disorder

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When someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know how or when to help. Showing support can often look and feel different depending on particular details or where someone is on their recovery journey.

Here are some ideas for how to help a friend with an eating disorder, regardless of where they are or what they’re going through.

How to Help a Friend with an Eating Disorder

Learn More About Their Disorder

No matter where your friend is on their recovery journey, learning a little more about what they’re going through is a helpful first step before approaching them.

Eating disorders are complex illnesses. They can manifest in a number of different ways, and are often accompanied by a host of less-obvious symptoms that may have a serious impact on your friend’s physical, mental, and emotional health.

If you have an idea of which eating disorder you think your friend may be struggling with, you can begin researching that topic in particular. If not, you can read more about eating disorders in general, or a few you think may most likely be affecting your friend.

Looking into the prevalent myths and hard truths about eating disorders can help you start to understand what your friend is really going through. This can help you empathize with them, ask them more helpful questions, or understand the type of help they may need.

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Talk to Them About It

Talking to a friend who’s struggling with an eating disorder can be tricky. The topic is extremely sensitive and discussing it may leave them feeling particularly upset or defensive.

If this is the first time you’re broaching the subject with your friend, you may want to:

  • Agree on a time and place to talk. Somewhere quiet and private is best.Think of times when your friend won’t be distracted by other obligations. This will all help ensure your words are heard, and your friend will be more likely to be open to what you have to say. 
  • Rehearse what you want to say. When discussing something this sensitive, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by emotions and say something you don’t mean. Practicing what you want to say will help the conversation run more smoothly.
  • Use “I” statements. Something like, “I have noticed you aren’t eating meals with us anymore,” helps keep the conversation observational and steers it away from blaming your friend for their actions. This is opposed to statements like, “You’re not eating enough,” which can be perceived as inflammatory, and make your friend feel attacked.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Examples include “How long have you been feeling this way,” or even, “How do you feel?” But it’s equally important to keep an open mind about whatever answer your friend offers.
  • Prepare yourself for a bad reaction: Your friend may have any number of reactions to this conversation. They may feel angry or incensed that you brought up the topic and lash out at you. They may feel embarrassed and shut down completely. 

The important thing is to not be discouraged by any reaction to this conversation. Try to remember all you learned about what your friend is going through to keep things in perspective. Take a breath, or walk away if you have to. Then, regroup, and try again.

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Show Them Support

Once you’ve let your friend know your concerns, it’s important to continue opening yourself up as a source of support. Cultivating the type of relationship where your friend feels safe honestly expressing themselves is key. 

To help build and maintain this type of rapport, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be honest. Don’t hold back any concerns you may be having for your friend, at any point in their recovery. Likewise, don’t be shy to let them know how proud or happy you may feel for their progress. However, keep in mind that not everyone recovering from an eating disorder is ok with comments around their progress, so it may be best to ask about boundaries and triggers.
  • Be caring. Watching a friend struggle with an eating disorder is extraordinarily difficult. Try not to let your frustrations leak into the conversation. Remember everything they’re going through and all the hard work they’re putting in, and approach these conversations from a place of genuine care for your friend’s wellbeing.
  • Remove the stigma. Remind your friend, if you need to, that there’s no shame in struggling with an eating disorder, or talking honestly about that struggle. Remind them that you’re their friend no matter what.
  • Be there. What sounds like the simplest concept may be the most important. Responding to their calls or messages, listening to your friend, or even just sitting next to them in a difficult time can make a huge difference in their recovery.

Again, it’s important to remember that recovery is an ongoing process, and almost never represents a straight line. Keeping yourself open to your friend can provide a crucial point of stability along a difficult journey.

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Actively Help Them

It can be tricky to discern when or how to actively incorporate yourself into your friend’s recovery journey. Some people may want more help than others, or feel more or less ready to receive outside suggestions.

In general, you’ll have to use your best discretion to decide when to take these steps, but a few ways to more proactively help a friend with an eating disorder include:

  • Reaching out. Your friend shouldn’t have to always be the one to contact you. Keep up with them and check-in on a regular basis to remind them that they’re loved and see how they’re doing.
  • Helping them find help. Many people struggling with eating disorders may feel overwhelmed—or outright uninterested—by the idea of seeking help. As a friend, you can help encourage them otherwise. If the process of accessing treatment feels too difficult and complicated, offer to help them research programs or providers, or look into insurance information or other burdensome tasks that may present roadblocks.
  • Spending time with them. No matter where your friend is on their recovery journey, they will likely appreciate knowing they’re not alone. If they’re open to spending time with a friend, it can be incredibly helpful to not just be there for them, but with them.

If your friend seems resistant to finding help, you may want to consult their family or other friends to more strongly encourage them to seek support. However, it is also important to respect your friend’s autonomy and privacy, so make decisions to involve others carefully and ideally discuss this with your friend first if possible.

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Take Care of Yourself

Regardless of how much you want to help a friend with an eating disorder, it’s important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Equally important as supporting them is keeping your own wellbeing in mind. Helping someone struggling with something this serious can take a lot out of you, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Make sure you are meeting your own physical and emotional needs and not becoming burnt out by overextending yourself. You can work with your friend and other trusted individuals in their life to establish a care network so that they aren’t relying solely on one person for support. Even as you offer time and support to your friend as they go through their recovery process, remember that you need and deserve time and care for yourself too. 

Regardless, it’s important to remember that, as much as you may want your friend to get better, the journey toward recovery is ultimately theirs to take. If your friend doesn’t feel ready to commit to recovery or starts slipping after a period of progress, it’s important not to blame yourself. The process may be long with twists and turns and even setbacks, but your support will be a big help to them, no matter where they are on the road to recovery.

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Frequently asked questions

Resources

  1. How to help a loved one. National Eating Disorders Association. (2021, August 27). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/help/caregivers 
  2. Melinda. (2022, June 15). Helping someone with an eating disorder. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/helping-someone-with-an-eating-disorder.htm
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