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Three Ways Eating Disorder Treatment Can Improve Your Personal Relationships

Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) can have devastating effects on a person’s physical health. Lack of nutrition and caloric intake often leads to serious health complications. However, it’s not as well-publicized that Eating disorders can also have long-lasting and detrimental effects on a person’s psychosocial well-being and personal relationships. That’s why eating disorder treatment is focused not only on medical needs and behavioral therapy but also on repairing a person’s relationships and helping them forge healthier ones.

Through the best eating disorder treatment, clients with eating disorders will learn a lot about how to break through those social relationship challenges to find a better way to connect with others. These classes and therapy sessions are performed in all levels of care – meaning that an individual will get relationship assistance in residential care, PHP, IOP, and day treatment platforms, and even in virtual therapy sessions.

First and foremost, a person’s family is central to their psychosocial development and generally remains their most important relationship. Parental influence is also a central factor in the development of eating disorders – if a person’s parents have an eating disorder, they are more likely to develop one themselves. Family therapy can help all members of the family examine their attitudes about weight, body image, and eating, and create new ways to healthily express those feelings.

A person’s peers, friends, coworkers, and/or fellow students also play an important part in their psychosocial functioning. Eating disorder treatment plans usually include lessons on managing one’s feelings about their place in the world and help one cope with insecurities when interacting with others. Check out some of the ways to enhance your personal relationships during your time spent in an eating disorder treatment center.

Group Therapy Activities During Eating Disorder Treatment Create Opportunities to Grow

Many people entering an eating disorder treatment program are hesitant about talking about their disorder or their innermost emotions with a group of total strangers- and that’s totally natural. However, both clinical studies and individual recollections indicate that group therapy is among the most effective and rewarding ways to address eating disorders. When a person enters a modern eating disorder treatment program, group therapy is almost always provided or even a requirement. Group therapy provides a way to practice listening skills, empathy, and self-expression in a safe, controlled environment. It makes for great practice in enjoying life without disordered eating behaviors. Some salient aspects of group therapy include:

  • Develop new communications skills that can be used in other relationships
  • Build confidence in yourself when it comes to discussing your thoughts and feelings or offering advice
  • Find new ways to express your thoughts when conversing with others

Recovery coaches and/or specialized therapists usually lead group meetings during eating disorder treatment. They guide the conversations, but they also allow time for relatively free-form discussions between group members to help encourage the development of those social skills that may be lacking. Clients in therapy often forge close friendships with their peers in group therapy – not only does this help develop healthier social skills, but it also provides a support system for the time after treatment has been completed.

Family Therapy Helps Restore Positive Relationships with Those Closest to You

Family therapy is an integral part of psychological treatment, and for good reason. In many ways, those closest to an individual with an eating disorder have also been living with an eating disorder; the primary difference being that they have to observe another person’s symptoms and struggles. It often means having to watch a loved one suffer with a feeling of helplessness. Luckily, having your family work through the issues related to the disorder is part of the best eating disorder treatment. This helps not only address the underlying causes of an eating disorder but also helps to construct a strong social safety net for the client’s return to life outside treatment.

It’s easy to think of a mental health treatment program of any kind as simply helping the individual in treatment, but no one is an island. Trying to help a person with a complex mental health disorder without also helping their closest loved ones grow in interpersonal relationships is like trying to repair a fallen house without also repairing the foundation. You might get the house standing again, but it’s primed for another fall.

Not only does family therapy help the client heal, but it also helps the family members improve their interpersonal skills. Many people whose loved one is struggling with an eating disorder want to help, but don’t know how to get started. Family therapy assists with this. It also allows them to better process their own emotions and improve their interpersonal skills as well. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Building a Support System With Family

Opening up to a loved one about a mental health disorder shows that an individual is building strength and a good support system to move forward with their life. Whether it’s parents, siblings, or significant others, these people will be able to help more when they understand what their loved one is coping with and the journey through treatment they have made. Boosting empathy is one of the key aspects of interpersonal therapy, and going through focused family therapy is one of the best ways to accomplish that.

Treatment at either an inpatient (residential) or outpatient (day treatment) doesn’t last forever – although some forms of therapy may continue for years, intensive care normally doesn’t exceed six months. That’s why the family’s involvement during the treatment program and the aftercare period is so essential. By employing various techniques and practices used while in treatment, such as journaling, family counseling sessions, and family activities that center on food like planned restaurant excursions and cooking sessions, people in recovery can include their families in their treatment.  This direct involvement strengthens the bonds between the people involved and produces a support system, which is essential in relapse prevention and ongoing recovery.

Recontextualizing a relationship with an eye toward eating disorder recovery takes involvement from everyone in that relationship. Relationship-strengthening exercise as part of eating disorder treatment means that everyone gets involved – and that everyone can help support one another. It can’t be one-way; if everyone is bending over backward to support someone who isn’t trying to reciprocate, it can be stressful for all involved. That doesn’t mean families shouldn’t make effort to help their loved one in treatment – it just means that rebuilding relationships is a two-way street.

Asking for Help Is the First Step to Recovery

Those who spend some time with an eating disorder psychologist often find themselves facing stumbling blocks in their personal relationships. Eating disorders often breed a sense of shame and guilt in the induvial, and openly admitting to something you’re ashamed of is a hard step for anyone t takes. It might be especially hard to reach out for help from the people you love, but those are the people who will support recovery most closely and intimately. And reaching out to them signals your trust in them and your seriousness in creating a happier and healthier life. After all, according to Psychology Today:

“Seeking help when you are struggling is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

An eating disorder is a condition that is oftentimes so private and involves a lot of shame, these personal feelings can easily affect how you interact with the people around you. However, through treatment and therapy, you will learn how to open up and rebuild those relationships that may have suffered throughout your disorder.

Trusting those closest to you is key when starting, and also when finished, eating disorder treatment. When the family is involved from the beginning, it makes the entire journey a collaborative affair. Reach out to a qualified professional or facility to find out more about involving your family and friends as part of your eating disorder treatment options.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido, 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.