Eating Disorders Awareness week is here! It’s running from Monday 23rd February to Sunday 1st March and it is a time to raise awareness and improve understanding about eating disorders across the UK. You may be reading this and know someone who has an eating disorder. Or possibly you yourself have eating issues and are feeling a bit stuck and helpless in what to do. This could be your week to get the information and support you need to begin to address your eating problem or support a loved one as they begin to consider change. It has to be one of the most challenging situations to face when someone in your life stops eating or turns to food in a destructive way to manage distress. Maybe your lovely daughter starts counting calories, and weighing herself at every opportunity. You see that she has lost weight and is becoming withdrawn from her friends, but she denies there is a problem. You know that your warm-hearted and kind sister spends pounds on cakes and chocolates to eat secretly, alone in her room. You have glimpsed the aftermath of the wrappers strewn across the floor and your sister’s face of guilt and shame. You have tried to talk to her but you can’t. You are met with a stone wall of defence which feels impenetrable. Your brother, who has always been a fitness fiend, suddenly has taken his exercise regime to a whole new level. He is weighing his food meticulously and seems irrationally angry if he can’t go the gym. It has become an increasingly worrying obsession and he just doesn’t seem happy anymore. What to do? The helplessness and despair experienced when someone you love develops an eating disorder can be overwhelming. You so desperately want to support them but they seem unreachable. Straightforward logic and helpful advice appears to fall on deaf ears. You are at your wits end and don’t know what to do next.

Here are five helpful ways to support someone with an eating problem:

1. Understand it is likely to be a coping strategy

It may initially seem quite illogical and hard to understand when someone is either over or under eating. However, the eating disorder is likely to be a coping strategy for underlying distress. If they want to be thinner or desire to achieve the perfect body, although this is the powerful and more obvious drive, really it is often the surface issue to the problem. Quite possibly, underneath all of this food and body image focus indicates feelings of low self-worth, low mood or anxiety. Maybe life has thrown up some stresses or changes recently that your loved one is finding hard to cope with. Maybe they are feeling insecure and friendships are fragile. Therefore, as you seek to support and attempt to start a dialogue, try to see beyond the food. The food, weight and body focus might be all encompassing and it could be tricky encouraging someone to talk about anything else. Nevertheless, try to show your empathy by really focusing on the person and understanding their underlying difficulties.

2. Understand that change takes time

Your loved one may be in two very different minds about change, and ambivalence is to be expected. Part of them might well loathe the eating disorder with the disruption and negativity that it has brought into their life. Another part of them (consciously or unconsciously) might feel very safe and attached to the way it helps solve problems in the short-term. Starving, although painful and destructive can also provide effective distraction from difficult feelings and underlying stresses. It can offer feelings of power, achievement and control, which might possibly not be felt in other areas of life. Bingeing on food, although arousing feelings of guilt and shame, can temporarily offer escape from the treadmill of life; some dissociation from difficult feelings and a physiological ‘hit’ from blood sugar and endorphin surges. Understanding this real ambivalence about change may help you feel less surprised that your loved one could feel quite antagonistic about your attempts to support them. If you can explore someone’s ambivalence with them, this opens up doors for effective communication and openness.

3. Be patient

It can feel very frustrating when you want to help, but your attempts are re-buffed. When food and body issues are at the fore in someone’s mind and ambivalence about changing them is high, then rational logic, persuasive argument or even helpful advice might not be wholly welcomed. Trying to get someone to eat more because they are too thin or locking cupboards to prevent binge eating is probably not going to change behaviour unless they themselves feel ready to change. Try to remember that however much you would like your loved one to be better, they are unlikely to take action until they are ready themselves. Expect that you are likely to feel very frustrated at times. For someone to access more formal help, they need to have a desire and openness to consider change. There are likely to be many fears about accessing treatment and what this might mean. In cases where weight loss is rapid and people are physically in a dangerous state, then sometimes professionals might have to intervene and a hospital admission may take place. In most cases though, this is not the case. You can support someone in seeking help but you cannot do it for them. You could offer to go along to an appointment or help them seek out resources of support.

4. Look beyond the eating problem and keep seeing the individual

Your sister, your daughter, your brother, your friend. Keep talking about the light-hearted topics that you have always chatted about. If you can, you might also be able to explore underlying feelings about things going on in their life at the moment. It is very easy to get dragged into the whole weight; food and body image debacle everyday and this can quickly become the topic of all conversations and can trigger arguments. Pushing too hard or becoming over involved with the eating disorder may cause you to be inadvertently contributing to the maintenance of it. You may be persuaded or coerced to collude with the some behaviour which is also going to be unhelpful for both of you. Try to avoid if you can.

5. Look after yourself too

Supporting someone with an eating problem is likely to raise many frustrations and anxiety for you as the supporter. You might find you need someone to talk to yourself when things get difficult. Don’t be afraid to reach out and access a local support group or talk to a counsellor yourself. If you can process your own feelings and anxieties, you will then be placed to cope better, and will be more able to support your loved one as they need you.