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5 Ways to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Do you suspect that one of your friends or family members is struggling with an eating disorder, but don’t know how to reach out to them? If so, my heart goes out to them and to you, because I understand that it is a heart wrenching experience. It is very difficult to watch someone you care about go through something so difficult, and it is even more frightening when you don’t know how to help them. Here are 5 suggestions that might help you approach the situation:

Recognize the Problem

It is helpful to recognize the signs of an eating disorder. The following are some of the things you may notice if your loved one is truly struggling with this issue:

Anorexia Nervosa
• Dramatic weight loss
• Wearing baggy, bulky clothes to hide weight loss
• Preoccupation with food, dieting, counting calories, etc.
• Refusing to eat, especially certain foods, such as carbs or fats
• Avoiding mealtimes or eating in front of others
• Preparing elaborate meals for others, but refusing to eat them
• Exercising excessively
• Poor self-image/Making comments about being “fat”
• Stopping menstruating
• Complaining about constipation or stomach pain
• Denying that extreme thinness is a problem

Bulimia Nervosa
• Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in a short time, or finding lots of empty food wrappers or containers
• Evidence of purging, including trips to the bathroom after meals, sounds or smells of vomiting, or packages of laxatives or diuretics
• Skipping meals or avoiding eating in front of others, or eating very small portions
• Exercising excessively
• Wearing baggy clothes
• Complaining about being “fat”
• Using gum, mouthwash, or mints excessively
• Constantly dieting
• Scarred knuckles from repeatedly inducing vomiting

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Ask a Therapist: I’m scared to see a therapist for my eating disorder

Q: I started out with anorexia but now am bulimic/anorexic and have been this way for about 3 yrs now. I am on a binge/purge cycle and have purged everyday at least since November. One person knows about my ED and I am so scared to get help even though I know that I need it. I am fully aware of the dangers of bulimia. I am being treated for one of the symptoms of bulimia, which is passing out because of malnutrition. However, the doctors did not figure out that it is due to an ED. I’m 18 so I can get help without my family knowing which is a big deal for me because I can not let them know. They have a lot to deal with right now plus my mother does not really understand how to deal with things. Shes Bipolar and every once in a while has a Schizophrenic episode. I am scared of my father and stay away from him so I can’t tell him either, my whole family dynamic is screwy. However, I am considering getting help for my ED. What should I expect if I do decide to go to a therapist? What kind of questions will they ask me. Thanks for your help.

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Ask a Therapist: Tips To Help Control Bulimia

Wasatch Family TherapyQ: I have been suffering from bulimia for four months now. I realize the health risks and I know I have a problem. I have been trying to stop for a month now with no success.  Before this problem I was healthy and now I fear that all my hard work I have completed over the years to be a healthy person are going down the drain. To be honest I am not sure what started my ED, but my main focus is to overcome it. I know that I have some self esteem issues and I will continue to work on that, but do you have any advice or tricks to stop these behaviors that have seemed to become habitual and uncontrollable. I know that getting professional help is probably the best way to go, but that is not me. I have always dealt with my problems in the past and I would like to give this a shot. So if you have any suggestions or tips to help me slowly stop these bulimic behaviors I would appreciate it so much.

A: I commend you for recognizing that you have a problem, for acknowledging the health risks, and for reaching out for help. While I can give you suggestions to try and change your behavior, it’s important to recognize that overcoming eating disordered behavior is much more than controlling your actions. Recovery also requires learning new skills to manage your thoughts and emotions, and learning to get comfort and soothing in relationships, instead of in food.

Out of control behaviors often serve as “relationship substitutes”. Consider that your symptoms may be signaling that it’s time to shift from doing things on your own to learning to ask for and accept help. When you feel the urge to binge or purge call a friend or family member. Even if you’re not ready to openly share your struggle with them reaching out to a trusted loved one can delay the urge to engage in self-destructive behavior and provide you with emotional support.

It can also be very helpful to journal your emotions before and after binging and purging to become more aware of the feelings driving your behavior, and to identify which emotions are most difficult for you to tolerate. You may find the book Mindful Eating and the workbook Overcoming Bulimia helpful in gaining awareness of the emotional and psychological roots of your behavior.

I urge you to seek an assessment with a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, and to schedule a physical with your doctor. To find a therapist in your area click here. If you do indeed have bulimia, your chances of recovery are higher if you seek help now instead of months or years down the road.

Send me your relationship and mental health questions here!

This post originally appeared in my Psych Central Ask the Therapist column

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Self & relationship expert Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is wife of 22 years and mother of 4, a licensed therapist, a popular media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Listen to Julie’s podcast You and Yours , on B98.7 radio as the Bee’s Family Counselor, and read her national advice columns on Psych Central! and Latter-day Woman Magazine

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