If you’ve found yourself on this page, it’s likely because someone in your life has anorexia nervosa (AN), and you want to help them. That’s a wonderful thing, and you’re probably concerned that you may say or do the wrong thing, especially when your loved one is in a vulnerable state.
We understand how helpless that can make you feel, as no one likes to see someone they care for in psychological and physical pain. But you’re not alone. Many people have been in this situation and with a little information and the right guidance, you can provide a lot of comfort and support to your loved one with AN.
Your concern about your loved one’s thoughts and behaviors around food may have brought you here, but how do you know whether their behaviors indicate warning signs of anorexia nervosa?
It can be difficult to distinguish certain eating disorder behaviors because some disordered habits have become extremely normalized and even admired in mainstream culture.
This is why it’s really important to be educated on the signs and symptoms of AN, particularly as someone suffering from an eating disorder can’t recognize the problem in themselves. Contrary to the stereotype, anorexia nervosa can occur in people of any gender and any body size. Some common signs and symptoms of the disorder include, but are not limited to:
If you haven’t approached your loved one before about your concerns they may have AN, it’s certainly not unusual to feel anxious about it.
Probably, the best time to share your concern is outside the context of a meal and away from food altogether. Try to find a quiet space where you can be alone with your loved one and let them know with compassion what you have witnessed and why it concerns you.
Try to stick to “I” statements, followed by what you have seen, such as “I notice you don’t join us for meals anymore, are you feeling okay?”. Your direct observations will show your concerns in a way that someone in denial about their eating disorder is more likely to hear.
Additional conversation tips include:
It’s not easy for anyone to admit that they are suffering from anorexia nervosa or any other eating disorder for that matter. At first, your loved one may deny that there is a problem and will probably try to rationalize their eating behaviors to you.
This is actually a symptom of their eating disorder known as anosognosia, a condition where people with AN and other eating disorders can’t perceive their condition accurately, possibly due to the effects of malnutrition on the brain. (1)
While you can’t force someone to admit they have a problem, you can continue to provide support to them until they feel ready. Let them know that you’re always there to listen without any judgment, and when they are ready to ask for help, you’ll be by their side every step of the way.
Anorexia nervosa can be life-threatening. If your loved one has yet to seek professional help, encourage them to take that challenging step.
Research the treatment options for yourself, so you can go into this discussion fully informed. Let them know that they don’t have to live with anorexia nervosa and that treatment for this eating disorder and others can be successful. The sooner your loved one seeks treatment, the better their chances for a complete recovery.
Offer to go with them to a doctor or therapist for their initial appointment and promise that whatever treatment they need, you’ll be there to support them completely.
It’s hard to know when, or at all if you should tell someone about your concerns. It may feel like a violation of trust to speak to another person about your loved one’s issues around food restriction and body image.
If you fear that your loved one’s health is in danger, it may be appropriate to reach out to another person they trust to discuss ways to provide them with more care and support.
It’s easy for a person with anorexia nervosa to become withdrawn, so it may take some extra effort to involve them in social situations to stop them from isolating themselves. Some useful tips include:
Even if your talk with your loved one did not go well, or if you don’t feel you got through to them with your concerns, don’t get disheartened. You did the right thing by sharing your concerns with your loved ones, letting them know that you care about them.
You may have also given them something to think about, planting a seed that perhaps their behaviors surrounding food and their body are not what they should be. It may take time, but the concern from friends and family may just be the wake-up call they need, helping them take the steps towards recovery. At Within Health, we will help support you through treatment for anorexia nervosa. Speak with our team today to learn more about our virtual care program.