Eating Disorder Recovery: When To Seek Support

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you are experiencing a crisis related to an eating disorder or would like further resources, contact the ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767 from Mon to Friday from 9 am to 9 pm CT.

Relationships with food can be complex. Food provides essential nutrition and energy to all living beings and can lead to a healthy lifestyle. However, many people have complex feelings about eating or may use food or restrictive habits to cope with challenging thoughts or emotions. 

Those struggling with eating patterns or body dysmorphia could be living with an eating disorder and other co-occurring mental illnesses. With support, you may be able to mend your relationship with food while managing any underlying symptoms of mental illness.

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Take steps to manage your eating disorder with online support

Cultivating awareness around your eating disorder

In the eating disorder recovery process, developing awareness of your symptoms and the fact that you are struggling can be valuable. There are many eating disorders that people may experience. If you don't know what symptoms to look for, you may not believe you are living with a mental illness. 

Below are a few common eating disorders that people experience, including their symptoms. If you relate to any of the symptoms of an eating disorder, contact a physician or mental health professional to discuss the possibility of an evaluation. 

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with weight loss. It may cause those with the condition to engage in dangerous behaviors to prevent weight gain. Symptoms of anorexia nervosa may include:

  • Excessive fear of weight gain 
  • Limiting the number of calories eaten in a day
  • Not eating for days 
  • Exercising obsessively
  • Vomiting or using laxatives to maintain an ideal weight
  • Eating non-food items to fill the stomach 
  • Drinking a high amount of coffee or water 
  • A loss of menstrual periods 
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • A loss of calcium that affects bone strength
  • Dry, yellow skin
  • Anemia and muscle loss
  • Constipation
  • Low body temperature
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Low blood pressure, heart rate, and slowed breathing
  • Medical emergencies 

Note that anyone of any weight or body shape can experience anorexia nervosa. Body weight is not a defining symptom of any eating disorder. 

Bulimia nervosa

Although those with bulimia may show some of the symptoms seen in anorexia nervosa, the difference between the two is that those with bulimia nervosa experience binging and purging behaviors. Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Binging on significant amounts of food
  • Throwing up or using a laxative to expel food quickly from the body 
  • Chronic sore throat and inflammation from purging 
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Puffy cheeks and face
  • Tooth decay and loss
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disorder
  • Intestinal challenges 
  • Kidney pain or kidney stones 
  • Dehydration
  • A desire to lose weight 
  • Body dysmorphia
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Binge eating disorder (BED) 

While those with bulimia nervosa may expel the food they have binged on, those with binge eating disorder repeatedly binge without attempting to purge. This type of eating disorder can often result in health challenges, weight gain, diabetes, and hypertension. Symptoms of binge eating disorder can include the following:  

  • Eating rapidly 
  • Eating significant amounts of food 
  • Eating when you don't feel hungry 
  • Hiding your eating habits out of shame and embarrassment
  • Feeling guilty after engaging in binge-eating behavior
  • Eating many types of food or snacks at once to calm emotional distress 

Along with these symptoms, a binge eating disorder diagnosis must meet certain conditions. Binge eating disorder can only be diagnosed if the affected person engages in frequent binge eating behavior for at least one day a week for three months. They must also experience at least three of the above symptoms and feel out of control of their eating habits.

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) 

Many people may associate restrictive eating patterns with anorexia nervosa. Although this is a symptom of anorexia, it is also a symptom of ARFID, a condition often connected to ADHD that may cause someone to struggle to eat or experience sensory difficulties with food. 

ARFID is not caused by body dysmorphia or a desire to lose weight; it may go undetected because the behaviors can look like "picky eating" or difficulty eating more than one meal daily. Although these symptoms might seem "mild," they can have severe impacts, including the following: 

  • Brain fog
  • Anemia
  • Difficulty gaining weight
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Severe malnutrition
  • Anxiety and depression 

If you think you might be experiencing ARFID, you're not alone. Contact a therapist or doctor experienced in this condition for further guidance. 

Eating disorder recovery: Recovery process 

The National Eating Disorders Association breaks down the recovery stages from an eating disorder into five sections, including the following. 

The precontemplation stage

Individuals in the pre-contemplation stage may struggle to accept that they have an eating disorder. Even if they have family and friends pointing out their behavior and symptoms, they may respond by remaining in denial about their eating disorder or the need to seek recovery. This stage can often be one of the most difficult, as an individual may need to acknowledge their condition before they can begin treating it.

The contemplation stage

At the contemplation stage in the process, the individual may start to accept that they're living with an eating disorder and begin research on treatment. During the contemplation stage, people may feel anxious about seeking recovery. It can benefit individuals to have social support as they navigate looking for resources. 

The preparation stage

Once someone has accepted their eating disorder, they may begin finding the resources to treat symptoms. This step can include looking for the right counseling resources, learning the proper coping mechanisms to cope with symptoms, and creating a plan of action that may allow them to move forward with fewer problems.

The action stage

Armed with knowledge and tools, individuals can begin taking action to cope with their eating disorder symptoms and manage their symptoms. In the action stage, they may have developed a solid plan with the assistance of a therapist and nutritionist and can begin working through the tools and processes they have learned. Recovery can be difficult, but this stage is a significant step in healing. 

The maintenance stage

At the maintenance stage, those with an eating disorder may have worked on their treatment plan for at least six months. They may have learned how to implement the tools and start feeling self-sufficient. They could also require support as they navigate this new life phase.  

Additionally, those in recovery may start to feel aware that relapse is possible. If you do engage in old habits, it doesn't make you any less worthy of recovery or change. Relapse can be a part of being human, and returning to the maintenance stage is possible.   

Termination and relapse prevention 

Some professionals refer to a termination and relapse prevention stage where clients believe they are no longer at risk of relapsing after some time. While this idea may be accurate, it can be beneficial to fully understand all components of your treatment plan and demonstrate that you can manage your eating disorder independently. Contact your therapist or support system to discuss these feelings if you're afraid of relapsing.                 

Co-morbid conditions and eating disorders 

Other mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, may accompany eating disorders. Studies show that 50% to 75% of individuals with an eating disorder also live with depression.

When you enter treatment, your therapist might help you devise a treatment plan for these conditions in addition to your eating disorder. This treatment plan may consist of therapy or medication. If your eating disorder has caused significant health problems, you might also be hospitalized to recover before moving forward with your treatment. Before starting, changing, or stopping any medication, consult a medical professional. 

At any stage of recovery, therapy can be a helpful resource. Besides offering support when you feel dysmorphic, therapy can help you implement valuable coping mechanisms to navigate the hardships of your condition.

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Take steps to manage your eating disorder with online support

Counseling options 

Eating disorders often accompany feelings of shame, embarrassment, or difficulty leaving home. In addition, the high rate of co-morbid depressive disorders can make it challenging to reach out for support. If you're not ready to try in-person therapy, online counseling might be more accessible. 

Through an online platform like BetterHelp, you can receive affordable and accessible care through phone, video, or live chat sessions with a therapist specializing in eating disorders. Online therapy involves many of the same therapeutic modalities you may find in person. These modalities can be practiced from home, and your therapist can send you extra resources like journaling prompts, worksheets, or questionnaires to support you as you attend sessions from home. 

Studies also show the effectiveness of online therapy. One 2021 study on the effectiveness of internet-based therapy for eating disorders found that online therapy increased physical and mental health, self-esteem, social functioning, and quality of life. Treatment effects were sustained over one year after therapy ended. These results show that online therapy can have effects similar to in-person options. 

Takeaway

Eating disorders can have an impact on mental and physical health. The more these conditions remain without treatment, the more symptoms may become dangerous. If you believe you are living with an eating disorder and want to start working towards recovery, reach out to a therapist for a screening. 

Although recovery can be challenging, it is possible. Regardless of your history of relapse or treatment, it can be valuable to keep trying and looking into the multiple resources available for recovery. An online therapist is one method that is readily available for many people living with eating disorders.

Healing from eating disorders is possible
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