How to help a friend who’s suffering from an eating disorder [Guest Post]

This post was written by Nicola Smith.

Watching important people in your life suffer from an illness is excruciating. Not only are you trying to manage the difficulties of seeing someone you love suffering, but it can also be hard to know how to support and help people in these situations. Eating disorders can be difficult to deal with because of the sensitivity of discussing the illness with your friend in need.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines anorexia nervosa as, ‘a persistent refusal to eat sufficient food to maintain a healthy weight’. Anorexia nervosa sufferers often see themselves as overweight, regardless of their true physical state resulting in extreme abstinence from food until serious health complications force treatment.

Anorexia is an unintentional loss of appetite or lack of interest in food. This loss of appetite is often caused by an underlying medical condition.

Bulimia nervosa can also be associated with anorexia nervosa when a person goes through repeated cycles of binge eating and purging.

If you are concerned that a friend is suffering from an eating disorder, there are ways you can start a conversation, offer your support and help them begin the journey to recovery before the risk of health complications increases.

The steps below provide you with some ways to help a friend suffering from an eating disorder to support them on a path to recovery and improved health.

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 1. Understand the symptoms

The NIMH lists some of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa as emaciation, unwillingness to maintain a normal body weight, tirelessly striving for a thin frame, intense fear of gaining weight, loss of menstrual periods in females, severely restricted diet and a distorted body image.

The symptoms of bulimia, which can also occur alongside anorexia nervosa, include osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones), brittle nails and hair, anaemia, weakness, muscle wasting, severe constipation, slowed breathing and pulse, dry and/or yellow toned skin, fine hair growth over the body, feeling tired all the time and feeling cold all the time.

Apart from physical symptoms, common behaviours associated with anorexia nervosa include excessive exercise, playing with or cutting food into small pieces instead of consuming it, irritability, withdrawal from social activities, depressed mood, hunger denial and use of diuretics, laxatives or diet pills.

 2. Educate yourself on the eating disorder

If your friend has any or all the symptoms above, and you have reason to believe they are suffering from an eating disorder, educate yourself to understand what your friend is going through so you know how to help your friend.

Before you talk to your friend about your concerns for their health, understand that an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa is a coping mechanism. Their potential denial of being unwell is a psychological defence.

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 3. Talk to your friend

Once you have a better understanding of what your friend is going through and their specific health condition, calmly approach them to communicate that you are concerned for their health and wellbeing.

Choose a time and place where you know this person is comfortable and you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Remember to frame your conversation in a way that helps your friend understand that you are starting the conversation out of concern for their health.

If you are met with denial, and it’s your initial attempt at discussing your friend’s illness, offer your unconditional support and continued friendship. Don’t promise to keep your friend’s illness a secret, if you are asked; this will prevent them from getting help for a successful recovery.

If your friend isn’t comfortable discussing their illness any further, identify other close family and friends who can assist you in helping your friend get the right help for a successful recovery.

 4. Get your friend help for a successful recovery

Find a local mental health organisation, trained medical professional or self-help group that can provide you and other important, trusted people in your friend’s life with information about the best course of action for treating the eating disorder.

Organise an approachable and supportive way to share this information with your friend and let them communicate their thoughts on how they feel about getting help from a medical professional. This step again is also an important time to ensure family members and other trusted people in your friend’s life are present or informed about your plans to discuss treatment options.

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 5. Discuss next steps

If the initial conversation about your friend’s illness, treatment or professional help options and your communication with their family is not well-received, discuss with your friend’s family what next steps to take so you are all on the same page to offer support.

Knowing how to approach helping and supporting a friend suffering from anorexia nervosa isn’t easy, but with the steps above you can start an open and honest conversation to begin your friend’s road to recovery. Remember to be there as a constant support for your friend. While it may be difficult, helping your friend on a path to recovery from their eating disorder is something they will be grateful for in the long term.

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Helpful resources:

Eating Disorder Symptoms, Causes and Effects, PyschGuides.com, 2017, http://www.psychguides.com/guides/eating-disorder-symptoms-causes-and-effects/

How to Find Help Treating an Eating Disorder, PyschGuides.com, 2017, http://www.psychguides.com/guides/how-to-find-help-treating-an-eating-disorder/

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About the author:

With a keen interest in holistic health and wellness, Nicola Smith works with heart-centred female entrepreneurs in the health and wellness industry, providing copy that engages to help grow their businesses. Her goal is to help women increase their impact on the world, build the business of their dreams, and inspire others to simplify their lives, pack a suitcase and book a ticket to somewhere they’ve always wanted to visit or live. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram @luggagelifestyle.

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