How human connection reduces the risk of relapse
Eating disorders rely on isolation; letting others in threatens its very existence. The eating disorder thrives on disconnection from your loved ones, convincing you that it is you and your eating disorder against the world! There is little brain space or energy for any external relationships when you’re in the throes of an eating disorder, as the thoughts and behaviours are all-consuming. Because of this, it only makes sense that the opposite action of prioritising human connection is needed in recovery to prevent relapse.
Not only is this our clinical experience in treating clients with eating disorders at Embody Health London, but it is also backed up by evidence.
One study found that social connectedness was inversely correlated with levels of eating disorder symptoms; in other words, a greater sense of connection was associated with fewer eating disorder symptoms.1
Another study looking at recovered individuals found that recovery was largely influenced by the sense of connection and support the individual felt within their family and friend groups, and within the patient-practitioner relationship.2 They also reported feeling more hopeful about recovery when they developed stronger emotional connections with friends and family who supported their recovery.
We also know recovery isn’t dependent on having a lot of support, but rather on having good quality support. Quality over quantity! So who might these supports include in your recovery journey?
Close family and friends
These are most likely the people you spend the most quality time with and the ones you might feel most comfortable reaching out to in difficult moments. Be as open and honest with them as you can about what you’re experiencing, as well as how they can best support you. They want to be there for you but just might not know how to.
What can be helpful in this case is to give some specific examples of what is most helpful for you when anxieties are high, such as talking it through, engaging in distraction, or mindfulness.
If you are having difficulty accepting support, think about how you feel when you are given the opportunity to provide support to others. If you want to provide a helpful resource to a loved one – share our blog to help them understand how to support eating disorder recovery.
Your wider community
These are the people who can help you to feel a broader connection to your community and purpose, and might include people from school, work, or a class or group you’re involved in. They might not know the details of what’s been going on but can help you to stay engaged in hobbies and things you enjoy under the threat of relapse.
Beware of unhelpful topics of conversation, as not everyone is well-versed in rejecting diet culture (as we are sure you know)! It can be helpful to have a plan to divert these types of conversations, such as changing the subject or excusing yourself. You can learn more on our blog on how to deflect food comments.
Peer support groups
These are people who have gone through (or are going through) eating disorder recovery can directly relate to what you’re going through. Research has found that connecting to people with lived experience not only demonstrates that recovery was possible in the face of relapse, but also decreases isolation.2
There are support groups available both face-to-face and online, depending on your location. For those in the UK, Beat facilitate a range of support groups for people of all backgrounds.
An incredibly important support in preventing relapse if you ask us (although we’re a little biased)! Your treating team can include a dietitian, psychologist, psychiatrist, GP, mentor, recovery coach and many more professionals. These are the people who can help you to develop the skills to navigate challenges and provide you with a sense of accountability – remember that true accountability lies with you though!
While your engagement with your treating team will naturally decrease over time as your recovery progresses, it is vital that you reach out immediately if you recognise any red flags of relapse, even if it has been a long time since you’ve been in contact.
The most important thing that we want to reiterate is to ask for help when you need it. We know this can feel scary and you might feel some kind of way about being vulnerable with those around you. However, the people who care about you want to support you and get you through challenging times.
Lastly, remember that relapse is not a failure – it’s an expected phase of recovery and an opportunity to grow and learn about the areas that need strengthening for a life free from an eating disorder.
If you a seeking a dietitian as part of your treating team, that’s where we come in! You can get in touch with us. We’d love to hear from you!
As part of our newly re-vamped online programme we are so excited to share that THRIVE includes weekly support groups so you can have a go-to safe space where you will feel understood and supported every step of the way.
Karli Battaglia, APD
EHL Team x
- Nunez N. Social Connectedness and Eating Disorder Symptomatology. Psychology. 2019;38.
- Linville D, Brown T, Sturm K, McDougal T. Eating Disorders and Social Support: Perspectives of Recovered Individuals. Eating Disorders. 2012;20(3):216-231.