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How to Support People with an Eating Disorder

Jul 19, 2022

Food plays a central role in all of our lives. Whether we’re arranging a celebration or just planning basic sustenance throughout the day, the subject of food is inescapable. For most people, this doesn’t present much of a problem; even for those who may be dieting or trying to change their eating habits, food won’t be a major issue. But for anyone suffering with an eating disorder, food can feel like it’s taking over their life, impacting their health, and draining their happiness.


As a mental health professional, it’s likely that at some stage in your career you’ll be called on to support a client with an eating disorder – and it’s crucial that you have a good understanding of how best to help them when that time comes.


Finding the Right Approach


When someone is diagnosed with an eating disorder, they’ll often be referred for therapy or another form of counselling. Talking therapies can help to challenge unhelpful thoughts, behaviours and beliefs, and overcome emotional difficulties. Some of the most effective therapies include generic counselling, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), psychotherapy, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, family therapy, art therapy, and group therapy.


The important thing to remember is that every person will respond differently to therapy, and while one approach may work well for one client, it may not be suitable for another – even if they’re struggling with the same eating disorder. You’ll be able to employ your professional experience to determine the best course of action for your clients, with plenty of input from them in terms of their personal preferences, and what they want to achieve.


Alongside therapy, your client may need to work with a dietician for help with nutrition and meal planning; they may also want to consider medication commonly prescribed for conditions like anxiety and depression. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication can sometimes afford people the headspace to get the most out of therapy.


It’s really important for your client to feel like they ‘click’ with you, so focus on building a rapport, understanding where their challenges with food are coming from, and gaining as much knowledge around eating disorders as you can.


Exploring Your Client’s Issues with Food


Talking therapies can be enormously beneficial for challenging deep-rooted beliefs that lead to unhealthy behaviours and unhelpful thought patterns. The first step is to identify these.


Ask your client what is causing them to feel unhappy or distressed in this area of their life right now. You should also encourage them to consider the impact that their issues around food are having on their life, wellbeing, and mental health.


To explore this further, challenge your client to pinpoint exactly how they’d like to change their eating habits, and identify what positive (and negative) effects may arise from these changes. It can also be helpful to work with your client to map out three initial steps they can take towards making this change a reality.


Working through these questions together while exploring the basis of their thoughts will help your client to challenge, rationalise, and eventually break the patterns that are causing so much distress in their lives. Sometimes, your clients simply need a safe space to release their emotions and free up some much-needed headspace.


A Focus on Psychological Health


Rather than focusing on your client’s weight, it’s helpful to centre your support around the importance of self-worth and self-acceptance. People who are suffering from an eating disorder typically struggle with issues around perfectionism and control, but with the right therapy, it is possible to help your clients become more outward-looking.


CBT can be incredibly effective for challenging thought-patterns, but it doesn’t always get to the root of what’s caused the eating disorder in the first place; a combination of therapies can therefore be useful. Some people may also need help with practical things, like eating in public or going to the supermarket – which is why a multi-disciplinary approach from a team of professionals may sometimes be needed.


Through counselling, you can help your clients to free themselves from obsessions with food, better manage their feelings, master their cravings (to eat only when hungry and stop when full), feel more accepting of their bodies, cope with relationships without turning to or restricting food, care for themselves with a level of deep respect, feel energised and excited about the future, and negate the need to hide their behaviour from others.


Ultimately, your job as a mental health professional is to help your client understand that they are so much more than their eating disorder. And that together, you really can help them to change their life.

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