Recovery is one word that holds so many different meanings to so many people. It could mean having the energy needed to go pumpkin picking with friends or maybe it means having freedom in your food choices. Whatever it is, there are five stages in which a person recovering from an eating disorder will go through during their recovery process. Recovery is not the same for everyone and an understanding of the different stages can be helpful.
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
The Pre-contemplation Stage occurs when a person with an eating disorder is in denial that there is a problem. They may believe that how they eat is helpful and healthy rather than harmful and destructive. As family and friends may have noticed the warning signs, the individual with the eating disorder will have little to no understanding that anything is wrong. When they are approached by a concerned friend or family member about their behaviors, the person with an eating disorder may become angry, frustrated, or irritable. The person with an eating disorder has found a way in which they can cope with uncomfortable feelings. The thought of stopping and letting go of the control can be distressing. During this stage, it is important to gently educate the person about the harmful effects of continuing down the path they are going. Parents can offer their child support by being aware of the signs/symptoms, openly sharing concerns with their child, and avoiding excusing eating disorder behaviors.
Stage 2: Contemplation
During the Contemplation Stage, the individual is willing to admit that they have a problem and are now open to receiving help. It is normal for the person with an eating disorder to fear change and feel uncertain about whether treatment can help. Having the person meet with a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders is vital as it will help them identify how and why their eating disorder came to be and how it no longer serves them. Parents can assist their children by insisting they receive professional help. Educating yourself about the disorder and how certain topics of conversation such as, trying a new diet, can be upsetting to the person with an eating disorder. Take time to listen to the individual and do not try to fix them yourself. Join a support group for families and friends for encouragement.
Stage 3: Preparation
The Preparation Stage occurs when the person is ready to change but isn’t sure how to do it. The person will work with their psychotherapist on identifying triggers and learning coping skills such as grounding exercises for anxiety, how to set boundaries, and effective ways of dealing with negative thinking from the eating disorder. During this stage, you will want to ensure that the individual has a treatment team consisting of a psychotherapist, dietitian/nutritionist, and a physician. The treatment team will work with the individual as well as the designated family members and supports in developing a plan of action.
Stage 4: The Action Stage
The person is now ready to put their strategy into action and face the eating disorder head on. During this stage, the person is willing to try new behaviors and are willing to face their fears in order for change to occur. It is essential that the individual trusts their treatment team and has support from their family or friends. The treatment team will make recommendations as needed and it is important to follow them. Remove all triggers from the environment such as scales and diet foods. Praise positive changes without focusing on weight, shape, or appearance.
Stage 5: Maintenance/Relapse
After enduring in the Action Stage for at least 6 months or longer, the individual is able to transition into the Maintenance Stage. The person is actively practicing new behaviors and utilizing healthy coping skills to manage stress. Discussing potential triggers and how to deal with them to prevent relapse also occurs during this stage. Family members and other supports can continue to support the individual by praising them for their hard work and success and maintain healthy, positive communication. Parents can watch out for signs/symptoms of falling back into old behaviors.
Eating disorders are serious mental and physical illnesses that affect over 30 million people in the United States. They are treatable. Recovery is not a straight line; it’s filled with ups and downs but it is worth it.