As part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) released a report showing that 30 million people in the U.S. will become diagnosed with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia at some point of their lives. This is true regardless of race, gender, age, or ethnicity, since it’s a problem that doesn’t discriminate. Of the various eating disorders, one stands out: anorexia, and its four percent death rate makes it the most deadly form of mental illness. This makes anorexia recovery a particularly urgent part of eating disorder awareness. For our part of this awareness week, let’s take a look at the road to recovery and how anorexia can best be treated.
Changes During the Anorexia Recovery Stages
Anorexia, like other forms of mental illness, does not have a hard-and-fast division between having the condition and not. Unlike, say, bacteria, there is no test that can be performed where a doctor will say you no longer have any anorexia in your body. Instead, recovery from anorexia is best conceived as a series of stages. These are not firm categories and can be revisited many times during treatment, but can be used to assess how someone’s recovery is progressing.
- Pre-Contemplation: This is the period in which the person doesn’t believe they have a problem. Friends and family may find this stage distressing; when dealing with mental illness, it’s very hard to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped or who doesn’t think they are in need of help. It’s necessary to try to educate and speak with the person about their eating disorder, but care must be taken. If pushed too hard, it’s a natural reflex for someone to become defensive and “double-down” on their beliefs, making treatment harder. Unfortunately, there is no ideal method for convincing an anorexic that they have a problem, as what will work varies from person to person. Be gentle in attempts to educate and reinforce the idea of the positive aspects of change.
- Contemplation Stage: This is when the person is willing to admit they have anorexia and are receptive to getting help. At this point, it is important to respect their potential fear of change and to help them talk about what role or necessity the eating disorder has in their life. A therapist may be helpful at this point as a way to better move on to the next stage.
- Preparation Stage: When the person is ready to begin changing, they can be considered to have begun the preparation stage. This is a time when they and their supporters begin to develop a plan of attack. Such strategies involve forming coping skills, identifying potential barriers (and overcoming them), and developing treatment plans in concert with the person’s doctor, nutritionist, or other specialists and family members.
- Action Stage: Everything that is devised during the preparation stage starts to get implemented and the eating disorder is directly confronted. Support is highly important during this period, as is maintaining trust with the treatment team.
- Maintenance Stage: Once the person has undergone the action stage for at least half a year, they can be considered to be in the maintenance stage. This is a period of preserving the health gains earned during treatment and practicing and refining healthy behaviors and coping skills. A key part of maintenance is forming social bonds and activities while also revisiting known triggers so the person can be confident in their ability to resist a relapse.
What Do the Stages of Anorexia Recovery Look Like?
When dealing with anorexia, the recovering person’s friends and family are often involved and are integral to successful healing. However, it’s not an easy role to play and sometimes they could use some help and guidance of their own. If you are the friend or family member of someone who is recovering from anorexia, here are some small points to keep in mind as you go through the stages with them.
- Be open with your thoughts and concerns about your loved one’s eating disorder. Be mindful of potential resistance, but do not let yourself waver.
- It’s important not to rationalize away the symptomatic behaviors that you witness. Your denial can be just as harmful as their denial.
- Be a good listener. Offer an open, non-judgmental ear so that your loved one can properly talk about their feelings and motivations. Be honest, but kind.
- Encourage the seeking of professional help, but reassure them that you will still be a part of the recovery process.
- Do not try to solve the problem on your own. Anorexia, and eating disorders in general, are tricky matters and often require a group effort.
- Identify and establish a clear role for yourself in the recovery process.
- Ask how you can help, what ways can let you be best involved, and speak to the treatment team about what approach will be taken.
- Follow your role and the treatment team’s recommendations.
- Help your loved one avoid triggers such as scales or self-image stresses.
- Be supportive and understanding, but remain firm with boundaries and rules for the treatment.
- Applaud and reinforce positive changes without focusing on appearances. Say things like “You look healthier,” instead of “You don’t look as thin,” etc.
- Don’t rush the process. There is no set timeframe for how long recovery should take.
- If relapses do occur, try to be understanding while encouraging your loved one not to fall off the wagon completely.
- Continue to applaud successes.
- Keep up communication and support.
- Keep an eye out for possible backsliding or relapse behaviors.
Natural Treatment Options for Anorexia Recovery
Strictly speaking, there are no natural or alternative remedies for anorexia, given that it is a mental illness. This does not mean, however, that there is no place for holistic treatments. The anorexia recovery process can be very stressful and come with emotional or mental burdens. Certain natural remedies, like acupuncture, massage, yoga, or even just a soothing cup of tea, can be used to help stay relaxed and better make it through the hurdles that come up during treatment. These measures should not be undertaken in place of the treatment team’s plans, but instead can be used to supplement them and help make the process easier.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Brotsky, S., “Understanding Stages of Change in the Recovery Process,” National Eating Disorders Association web site; https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/understanding-stages-change-recovery-process, last accessed February 23, 2016.
Holland, K., “Alternative Treatments for Eating Disorders,” Healthline web site; http://www.healthline.com/health/eating-disorders-alternative-treatment#Overview1, last accessed February 23, 2016.
Navarro, A., “About 30 Million Americans Suffer from Eating Disorders,” Tech Times web site. February 22, 2016; http://www.techtimes.com/articles/135376/20160222/about-30-million-americans-suffer-from-eating-disorders.htm, last accessed February 23, 2016.