When it comes to eating disorder recovery, people are never healing all on their own—they are healing with the support, encouragement, guidance, and empowerment from their support system, treatment team, and recovery community. Relationships and connections are vital resources for achieving long-term eating disorder recovery and healing.
An individual’s community and support system can be made up of many different people in their lives, both professionally and personally. Examples of people making up a patient’s community may include:
Everybody in a recovering person’s community plays a different role in their healing and recovery. Some people can provide encouragement, while others might contribute practical tasks like grocery shopping and cooking. Others might provide space for emotional processing after triggering events or stressful moments. And someone else might be a great accountability partner.
The point is, everyone’s community is going to look and function differently, but what matters is that they are surrounded by trusting and caring people.
Recovery from an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder can be challenging and all-encompassing. And the more isolated people are when trying to recover, the harder it is. As such, a positive, loving community is essential. Community is where we learn, grow, process, see ourselves reflected in others, give and receive support, and share triumphs and setbacks. It’s often where we find the language for the things we’ve been struggling with.
When a recovering individual has a strong community, they also benefit from the support they need to heal their relationship with food and movement, deal with shame and stigma, manage triggers, and make healthy decisions. Often just knowing that we have a team of people in our corner can make it easier to cope with challenges. (1)
Community in eating disorder recovery, whether with fellow patients, in an alumni group, or in another support group, can give those in recovery a feeling of belonging. This is especially important for those who have felt excluded in the past. Belonging can help people in recovery feel affirmed, accepted, and validated. (1)
Within a recovery community, individuals often feel a renewed sense of self, purpose, and meaning, knowing they have unique skills and strengths to offer others. Helping people can make us feel good and reinforce and deepen our relationship with our recovery. (1)
Completing an eating disorder treatment program often isn’t enough for long-term recovery. Most people in recovery benefit from ongoing support and community in the form of aftercare. Recovery is a lifelong process, full of ups and downs, and a strong support system and network of loved ones and peers can aid in this process.
Support after treatment is so important because when people are in a higher level of care, they receive so much structure and support. But when they finish their program and transition back into their home and everyday life, it can be challenging to adjust, and many people may feel lonely or isolated.
Thankfully, there are many options for finding a positive support system and recovery community, both in person and online. Social media has revolutionized how we connect with others, creating opportunities to cultivate virtual communities with people from around the world. People online have created eating disorder recovery communities specific to certain conditions, ages, and sub-populations.
And individuals seeking community can also join existing groups, such as:
It’s crucial for recovering individuals using social media to learn to discern between helpful and harmful content. There is so much misinformation out there, and apps like TikTok spread it like wildfire. Being able to sift through the harmful content without internalizing it can be an invaluable skill throughout recovery.
One of the best ways people can support a loved one in eating recovery is to educate themselves on eating disorders, how to talk to a loved one, what language is appropriate, misconceptions about these conditions, and common challenges experienced by those with eating disorders.
Language is particularly important, especially when it comes to unlearning certain things we’ve been socialized to say. For example, caregivers and support people should avoid talking about the following:
Instead of discussing a person’s appearance, start meaningful conversations about feelings that emphasize well-being and de-center weight and size. Set a positive example by avoiding diets and negative self-talk.
Support people need support, too—a lot falls on their shoulders, and they need a safe space to process their emotions, problem-solve, and learn new skills. Support groups like Parents Helping Parents, Thrive Eating Disorder Support Group for Family & Loved Ones, and The Lotus Collective provide family members with the opportunity to ask questions, connect with other care people, and learn practical skills to help their loved ones.
Further, therapy can help caregivers manage their many complex emotions, learn stress management skills, challenge negative thoughts and beliefs, and create healthy boundaries. Support people who take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally will be able to provide better support to their loved ones in recovery.