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Addressing Social Isolation While in Eating Disorder Treatment Programs

While in eating disorder treatment, patients must work with their care team to overcome social isolation while becoming recovered. Addressing this issue helps promote healing in recovery and builds the social support patients need. Social isolation occurs for many reasons and can be difficult to resolve in a short period of time.

For this reason, across all treatment options for eating disorders, each level of care focuses on restoring social connections and building that network in different ways. The treatment levels may help prepare patients to build social connections or use programming to bring the family together. Patients receive all the support they need in navigating this process and using healthy coping skills to handle any stress that may arise.

Through targeted therapy sessions and other beneficial activities, eating disorder therapists help their patients create strong social networks and rely on them effectively. This greatly benefits patients as strong social support networks help improve eating disorder treatment results and assist them in remaining recovered.

Why Social Isolation Occurs with Eating Disorders

When affected by eating disorders, many people want to hide their symptoms, habits, and challenges from their friends, family and the world. Social withdrawal tends to occur as a result, but there are other underlying factors to consider. As revealed by comprehensive studies, people with eating disorders tend to have naturally low trust levels in their friends, family, and other close loved ones. This makes them unwilling to disclose personal details in fear of judgment or other repercussions.

People with eating disorders may feel shame or guilt from engaging in disordered behaviors or even from entertaining negative thought patterns. They may have periods of irritability, low energy levels and frequent illnesses from a lack of nutrients. Emotional dysregulation can complicate matters even more. When these issues add up, they greatly impede people from reaching out to others or even feeling worthy of that contact.

Eating disorders can even take the place of close relationships with time as people look for ways to cope with the isolation. They may start to depend on their eating disorder thoughts and behaviors in the same way they would a friend. The disordered coping strategies start to become a crutch that replaces the benefits derived from family relationships and friendships altogether.

Potential Dangers of Social Isolation

The loneliness that occurs with isolation can make eating disorder symptoms and social withdrawal tendencies worse than ever. At their core, human beings are social creatures who need to experience personal connections to thrive. When they cannot maintain these connections, they may feel a void that leaves them looking for other ways to cope. As a result, they may rely on disordered coping methods to handle the loneliness, causing their eating disorder symptoms to worsen over time.

Even without worsening eating disorder symptoms, social isolation is dangerous to people’s health. Without meaningful contact with friends and family, the body starts to release high levels of stress hormones. Relying on disordered coping methods does little to mitigate the stress, allowing the hormones to cause minor to severe health issues, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Poor focus

Consistently high-stress levels can also cause people to withdraw even more from social interaction, effectively becoming completely isolated. Without help at female and male eating disorder treatment centers, people may find it incredibly difficult to pull themselves out of this cycle and rebuild their social networks. The treatment center care team provides the framework and guidance that helps people recover from eating disorders and graduate with a strong social network in place.

Understanding Perceived vs. Actual Social Support

Social support comes in two forms: perceived and actual. It is important that people with eating disorders not only have an actual social support network in place but actually feel they do and can reach out effectively. Otherwise, their perceptions may make it seem like a social support network does not even exist. When people feel this way, they cannot effectively reach out to their loved ones and receive support when it is needed most. They may not even see reaching out for help as a choice.

Eating disorders and underlying mental health conditions can skew perceptions of social support and impede people from leaning on friends and family. They may feel like no one is actually there or even feel like they do not deserve the care and support. Fears about letting people in and receiving a judgment in return can cause people to put up walls and shut out their closest friends and family. This can slowly erode social support ties, necessitating a rebuilding period that usually occurs during eating disorder treatment.

When it is in place, the actual social support network has to provide actual care and support when people with eating disorders reach out to be truly effective. Every promise of support must be backed by action that helps bolster the perceptions of the individual in need of additional care and guidance. All support must come from a place free of judgment and full of love and compassion to have the greatest impact on the health and wellbeing of the recipient. With a strong and active social support network in place, it is possible to remove the negative perceptions to help people reach out effectively.

How a Strong Social Network Can Aid in Eating Disorder Recovery

Every person’s health and wellbeing is directly tied to having a strong social network and an ability to reach out as needed for help. With a strong network, people can remain resilient against health problems and recover quickly when issues do occur. Social support can also help aid people as they work on becoming recovered from eating disorders.

Treatment often focuses on building coping skills and using them to effectively eliminate disordered thoughts and behaviors caused by eating disorders. Social support is one of the most effective coping tools people have when they reach out to their friends and family at the first sign of a problem. Upon facing a difficult challenge, receiving support from a social group can provide insights and strengthen resilience that makes handling those issues much more approachable.

People in eating disorder treatment often benefit from directing their focus to healthy activities instead of entertaining disordered thoughts or engaging in dysfunctional behaviors. By participating in these activities as well, such as going on walks or picking up a new hobby, friends and family support people with eating disorders as they work on building their coping skills toolbox. They also provide a beneficial distraction from stressful situations by sharing time together, swapping stories and having a great time.

Ways Eating Disorder Treatment Centers Improve Social Connections

As social support remains an integral part of the eating disorder recovery process, treatment centers make building those networks a priority for their patients. People in eating disorder treatment are encouraged to identify those in their social networks and find ways to rebuild their connections. The treatment centers host family programming days and other events that encourage loved ones to visit and take part in the care process. The programming activities help educate loved ones about eating disorders and the process of becoming and remaining recovered. This helps them to understand what to expect and how to best participate in that process.

In addition to family programming, eating disorder centers often have family come in for individual and group therapy sessions. Through these sessions, people with eating disorders can share their stories and receive judgment-free support that helps break down the walls of social isolation. Their family members can share their side of the tale as well, helping to build connections through shared experiences.

In family group sessions, multiple families come together to give their perspectives and learn from each other. This helps to show people with eating disorders, and their loved ones, that they are not alone in their journey and have no reason to feel ashamed. Many times, people can give their full support and compassion to others well before they offer the same to themselves. By joining many families together in this way, eating disorder treatment patients can often start to make the connection that they also deserve the same level of compassion.

For all treatment options for eating disorders, building strong social networks remains an important part of the journey toward becoming and remaining recovered. With this step, it is possible to bolster the resilience and motivations of people in eating disorder treatment and give them the tools they need to remain recovered after graduation.

Patients can return to the treatment center anytime they need additional social support by attending the alumnae therapy sessions. These sessions allow graduates and their families to maintain connections to the eating disorder counseling center, its fully recovered staff, and their peers in recovery.

Methods for Coping While Building a Strong Social Network

Although developing social connections is vital for the recovery of people with eating disorders, the process can cause stress and trigger symptoms. Patients must find healthy coping tools and learn how to use them when faced with triggers to overcome these issues. Otherwise, the urge to isolate may grow ever stronger and disordered thought patterns could return.

The coping methods that work best depend on the preferences and perceptions of each patient at eating disorder treatment centers. Their unique experiences in recovery and social interactions also influence what coping methods might work best. Eating disorder therapists help their patients find the most effective coping skills and use them in real time. As patients encounter difficulties in maintaining social connections, they can come to their care team for additional support and guidance.

Patients also have plenty of support as they attend their daily therapy sessions. These sessions encourage processing of social visits and interactions to find any stressors that may exist. Upon identifying those difficult moments, therapists help their patients use their healthy coping skills to work past the distress. With each successful mitigation of distress, patients build confidence in their social interactions and ability to cope with triggers and stress.

Going Beyond Friends and Family in Finding Social Support

After graduating from eating disorder counseling centers, social support will help patients in remaining recovered throughout life. People who are recovered from eating disorders often benefit from looking beyond friends and family for support while continuing to nurture those relationships. The additional support can often be found in community groups and in social media.

Through social media connections in healthy support groups, people can see that they are surrounded by others facing similar difficulties in life. They receive the validation they need to fully appreciate their journey and celebrate their successes along the way. Reassurance and support exist whenever people need it when they are connected with others in easily-accessible online groups.

Community groups blend social interaction with the development of coping skills. People can come together to commiserate and practice new hobbies or other beneficial activities. The groups can center around whatever activity people favor most in coping well with daily stressors and eating disorder triggers. By building connections at every level, people can create a diverse social network that remains strong and accessible through all of life’s challenges.

When eliminating social isolation plays a major role in eating disorder treatment, patients can effectively build their support networks while working on becoming recovered. In addition to aiding in the recovery process, strong social support networks can assist patients in remaining recovered after graduating from eating disorder treatment.









Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.