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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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