Coping with a Loved One’s Eating Disorder

Heartbreak Often Accompanies the Battle

The emotional impact of witnessing your child or significant other battle a dangerous eating disorder is much the same as if it were any other debilitating physical disease.  The pain, guilt, anger, sorrow, confusion, frustration, and a myriad of other emotions experienced as one watches their loved one suffer a potentially life threatening disease are the very similar.  The heart hurts the same, regardless of the affliction, as it beholds the suffering of anyone we hold dear.

The truth is, just like any other deadly disease, an eating disorders can become a battle waged against a wily foe.  Just as cancer cells dodge valiant efforts to arrest the progression of that disease, widely unseen and powerful psychological mechanisms embedded in disordered eating can also prove formidable adversaries that inhibit recovery.

Just as a person battling a drug or alcohol addiction becomes fixated on their next hit or drink, someone battling an eating disorder is also expending much of their energy on obsessive thoughts and behaviors.  In both cases, significant relationships suffer as a result of neglect.

Built in to the behaviors of a person who suffers from an ED is a tendency to keep people at an emotional distance, usually in an effort to avoid judgment for their affliction.  Because at the root of their disorder lies shame and self-loathing, your loved one may believe that they are unlovable or undeserving of your love.  In addition, with their central focus on continuing on the path of disordered eating, your loved one may even see you as an adversary—someone who wants to block his or her efforts.

Sometimes an eating disorder is the result of a subconscious desire to avoid intimacy and authentic relationships.  In order to avoid the perceived messiness of a close emotional connection, some develop eating disorders to sidestep the difficult aspects of relationships, such as experiencing uncomfortable emotions like sorrow, disappointment, insecurity, or anger.  All close relationships include difficult moments and challenges, but someone with disordered thinking looks for ways to avoid possible undesirable emotions, and to exercise some control over the relationships.

Common Emotions Experienced by Loved Ones

Loving someone with an eating disorder can be difficult and trying.  Strong emotions rise up in response to the stress that accompanies the disorder, which may include:

  • Feelings of guilt are usually associated with the parent of a child or young adult suffering from an eating disorder.  It is common for parents to wonder if their parenting itself was to blame for the resulting ED.  They may wonder why they did not recognize the symptoms earlier, or have doubts that they can provide the right support for their child’s recovery.
  • An eating disorder is a serious disease.  Suicide rates among those with all forms of eating disorders are the highest among all mental health disorders, and premature mortality due to organ failure, heart failure, or malnutrition is a daunting reality.  Those who love someone with an eating disorder live with constant fear of losing them.
  • It is difficult to witness a loved one’s decline mental and physical health.  As the disease progresses, there is a pervading sense of loss felt by family and friends who sense their loved one drifting away.  Loved ones feel sad about the life changes an ED imposes on the person they love, while they witness hopes and dreams fade away with the progression of the disease.
  • Loved ones may feel exasperated as they watch an ED take over the victim’s life, and wonder why they seem to make no effort to get help to stop the destructive behaviors.  When a loved one’s attempts to help are shunned, they may become frustrated and angry.  Also, people with an ED may resort to deceptive behaviors to hide their disordered eating habits, leading to angry feelings and a loss of trust among friends and family.

 As with other mental health or addiction disorders, loved ones may not know how to help.  The disordered thoughts and habits confuse them because they seem irrational, so they don’t know how to act or what to say, or even how to support the person with the eating disorder.

 We Can Help

 At Casa Serena our caring and supportive professionals understand the difficult emotions that family and friends experience when their loved one is afflicted with an eating disorder.  Our individualized treatment plans include weekly multi-family groups that help loved ones address issues related to the eating disorder dynamics in the family and within significant relationships.  Individual family counseling is also available when needed.  Casa Serena provides education to the family as a tool to support their loved one’s path to a full recovery.  Call us today (925) 682-8252!



Males Battle Eating Disorders, Too

The Eating Disorder Landscape is Not Only Populated by Females

While eating disorders may be more prevalent among females, plenty of males are also struggling with these dangerous disorders. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association reports that while 20 million females are affected by eating disorders at some point in their lives, 10 million men will be as well; a statistic that is not widely known.

Among those suffering from anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, approximately 25% are male. The percentage of males with binge eating disorders is higher, at 36%. The impetus behind what drives men and women to develop disordered eating habits is complex. Generally, factors that can result in an eating disorder may include biological, psychological, and interpersonal aspects.

Anorexia nervosa may result from risk factors such as childhood eating conflicts, struggles around meals, premature birth, feelings of inadequacy, and lack of control. With bulimia and binge eating disorders, a desire to live up to a media-driven portrayal of the perfect body shape and weight often drives obsessive behaviors and a preoccupation with thinness—“thin-ideal internalization.” Although the motive—attaining the “perfect” body—may be the same between the genders, there are distinct differences as to their specific concerns about their bodies.

Male vs. Female Eating Disorder Profiles

Young males are prone to the same insecurities related to their body size and shape as young women are. Males look to muscular celebrities as the ideal of manliness, just as girls seek to emulate stick thin supermodels. Beginning in 2010, men’s fashions became much more fitted, with ads featuring thin and sinewy male models plastered on billboards, magazine covers, and across social media. In recent years, an media focus on buff, pumped up male celebrities touting their six-pack abs has resulted in subconscious messaging for young men to try to attain a similar physique.

Where males may be less concerned with their weight than women, they are concerned with body image. Approximately 43% of men now report being dissatisfied with their bodies, a dramatic increase over the past few decades. Masculinity is often defined in our culture by how lean and muscular a man’s physique is. Males, therefore, may go to extremes to achieve the ideal body, turning to body building supplements, excessive exercise, steroid use, and disordered eating.

When the desire to achieve a muscular build becomes obsessive, it may lead to muscle dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia occurs mostly in males, thinking that their already fit bodies are still inadequate, seeing themselves as weaker and smaller than they actually are. This distorted thinking leads them to become consumed with weight lifting and hyper-vigilant about their diets to an unhealthy extent.

Social Media Fuels Eating Disorders

In the past, even just a decade ago, male teens and adults did not have the daily barrage of exposure to images of celebrities, models, and social pressures that has come with the advent of social media. Now, with men accessing multiple social media platforms on any given day, they are exposed to the hurtful comments and slurs directed towards both famous and everyday people about their looks or physiques. Again, this messaging sinks in, causing a sense of inadequacy and insecurity about their own bodies. It is as common nowadays for men to be sexually objectified as women, exacerbating the pressures they feel to fit the ideal image of what is perceived to be desirable.

Even among one’s peer group, many of those Instagram and Facebook photos have been doctored with Photoshop editing tools (even a “thinify” feature) and flattering filters, offering up a fraudulent image that subsequently becomes someone’s unattainable goal. Both females and males participate in the practice of photo editing their selfies and pics, in a quest to portray themselves in their best light, even if it isn’t authentic. So this becomes an unending dysfunctional pattern across social media, setting in motion the unrealistic images which can lead to negative self-talk, consumption of supplements or diet aids, and disordered eating habits.

Symptoms of a Male Eating Disorder

There are definite signs that point to an eating disorder. They include:

  • You exercise excessively. If you miss a workout you experience anxiety and guilt
  • You are compulsive about caloric intake, as well as sugar and fat content in foods
  • You use body building supplements or weight loss pills
  • You alternate between overeating and fasting
  • You engage in ritualistic eating behaviors, hiding food, eating alone
  • You feel depressed
  • You devote so much time to working out that you neglect family and responsibilities
  • You may experience muscle dysmorphia
  • You become isolated and withdrawn
  • You work out even with injuries

We Can Help

Because of the stigma attached to eating disorders, and combined with the erroneous notion that eating disorders are female-only issues, young men may not seek help for this serious medical condition. If you or your loved one is displaying the symptoms of an eating disorder, it is time for professional help. At Casa Serena our compassionate professionals can provide an assessment and customized treatment plan tailored just for you. Call us today (925) 682-8252!