Eating Disorder Recovery and Grief

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Eating disorders and grief have a multifaceted, complex relationship. Eating disorders may arise following a traumatic situation, after a loss, or during any period of grief. In addition to potentially being a provoking factor in the development of an eating disorder for predisposed individuals, grief may also complicate recovery and may make it more challenging. On top of this, individuals in recovery may also find themselves grieving their eating disorder, which adds another layer of difficulty onto the recovery process.

What is Grief?

Grief is a normal, albeit overwhelming, response to a loss of any kind. While grief is typically associated with death, grief can also follow a variety of experiences including relationship loss, a decline in health, miscarriage, physical or sexual assault, loss of a dream, etc.  

The concept of grief is further complicated because there are multiple types of grief. Grief can range in symptoms and can be broken up into the following categories:

  • Anticipatory grief
  • Complicated grief
  • Chronic grief
  • Delayed grief
  • Distorted grief
  • Cumulative grief
  • Prolonged grief
  • Exaggerated grief
  • Traumatic grief
  • Collective grief
  • Absent grief

Disordered Eating Following Loss

It is common for disordered eating to follow a loss or traumatic experience. Trauma and loss often leave an individual feeling depressed, anxious, or out of control, all of which are risk factors for the development of an eating disorder.

Following trauma or loss, some individuals may turn to eating and food to manage their fear, anxiety, or other grief symptoms. They may seek comfort in food, start regulating their eating patterns in new ways or restrict their food intake in order to regain a sense of control that they lost following the trauma or loss. Researcher Emily Troscianko states that “control is at the heart” of many restrictive eating disorders. By exerting control over an individual’s food and eating, they take back control over one area of their life in order to feel better. However, this disordered control around food typically worsens until it becomes damaging to the person’s health and wellbeing.

In direct relation to trauma, NEDA states that there is often a strong view that, “Body shame [may also] spark a large amount of eating disorders related to abuse. The body shame might trigger habits geared toward destroying the body of which the victim may be ashamed, resulting in starvation, purging, or binge eating.” These food-centric and self-destructive tendencies may progress rapidly into a serious eating disorder, which requires prompt and professional treatment.

Grief During Recovery

For those in recovery, times of grief may be impossible to avoid. Individuals may suddenly, or expectedly, experience a devastating loss that can throw their life and recovery out of sorts. With loss comes grief and with grief comes change. Those in mourning may experience a loss of appetite or they may turn to food as a source of comfort. They may experience feelings of extreme sadness and start to isolate from those around them. These eating and lifestyle changes could result in weight fluctuations or body changes, which may trigger eating disorder behaviors or worsen symptoms.

It’s important to recognize that some feelings and properties of grief are similar to the symptoms of an eating disorder. While not all people who experience grief will develop disordered eating, those who have a history of an eating disorder may find times of grief to be a particularly triggering and may even spark a relapse.  

Individuals should prioritize being aware of how they are responding to grief. The severity of grief emotions are likely to disrupt an individual’s life which may cause additional stress. During these times, it’s understandable that food may become an object of comfort. Individuals may restrict food to gain control again or may overeat to find comfort. Keep in mind these behaviors, due to their intention, is different than a loss of appetite (with no negative food or body associations) following grief. However, if that loss of appetite is causing someone to not eat for a prolonged amount of time, it’s important to know that behavior may have serious health consequences and could progress into a full-blown eating disorder.

While eating disorder symptoms may appear during times of grief in order to act as a comfort as a way to distract from feelings, these behaviors can quickly become dangerous. It’s important to always be cognizant of one’s own relationship with food and to be proactive if it starts to become problematic. It’s important to seek support or treatment as soon as a person recognizes disordered eating or signs of relapse. With the help of a specialized team, the individual can get back on track and maintain recovery.

Grieving an Eating Disorder in Recovery

It’s common for those in recovery to feel grief over the loss of their eating disorder and eating disorder behaviors. Individuals in recovery have relied on their eating disorder to serve some sort of purpose and in recovery, a coping mechanism they relied on is gone.

In addition to being a coping mechanism, those in recovery have often compared their eating disorders to an abusive partner. No matter how destructive and abusive someone’s eating disorder may be, it is still something that has been with them for a significant amount of time and losing its presence can feel like a loss. Those in recovery have voiced that they sometimes feel like they have lost who they are because their identity pre-recovery was intricately tied to their eating disorder. This can cause a loss of self, which is also something to grieve alongside the knowledge that recovery will allow for a healthier and more fulfilling life.

How to Cope With Grief in the Best Way You Can

  1. Acknowledge what happened. While being direct and honest about the loss you suffered can be extraordinarily painful, it is an important first step in finding healing. By recognizing what happened, you can begin the process of complete grieving and eventually heal.
  2. Acknowledge where you are. It’s helpful to note where you are in the process of grieving and how you are feeling. Starting a daily journal or waking up and spending five minutes mindfully reflecting on where and how you are may be helpful during this process. By setting aside space for your emotions, you allow yourself time to feel and move through your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Articulate what you need. It’s challenging to get to the core of our needs during grief and those needs may be different for everyone. It’s essential to understand what you need in order to heal. Do you need time? Do you need friendship and support? Do you need to speak with a therapist?
  4. Seek support. Once you understand your needs, it’s important to seek them out and advocate for yourself. Reach out to family and friends for support or find an online community. This is a great time to seek out professional support, although we understand professional mental health care may be unaffordable. In that case, we recommend reaching out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In addition, some cities offer free walk-in counseling which may be a major benefit to those grieving.
  5. Identify problematic ways of coping. Set aside time weekly to list the ways you are coping with your grief. Are these coping mechanisms healthy or are they causing you further distress and harm? If you are using negative coping mechanisms, it’s important to address them and seek support. For those relying on eating disorder behaviors or for those in relapse, it’s vital to get treatment as soon as possible. If you are seeking support or treatment for disordered eating, you can contact The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977.
  6. Make a list of positive coping mechanisms. Create a list of positive coping mechanisms that add to your life. Your list may contain activities such as seeing friends, meeting with a therapist or grief counselor, writing, doing an activity, etc. Work to incorporate these into your daily life.
  7. Know that how your grief appears is okay. Grief is a unique process that everyone will experience differently. There is no guideline to overcoming grief, only recommendations of how to start the process. There is no one way to heal or one appropriate way to experience grief. However your grief chooses to show up is okay—and how you choose to positively heal is okay.

At The Emily Program, we understand the complexities of both eating disorders and grief. We know that suffering from both grief and an eating disorder can feel unbearable, which is why we are here to support you. If you are seeking support in recovery or searching for treatment, we would be happy to start you on that journey. You can call us at 1-888-364-5977 or get started with recovery online.

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