Weight restoration can be one of the most difficult parts of recovery from an eating disorder. There can be numerous medical challenges to overcome during the process, especially with more severe cases of anorexia nervosa, such as refeeding syndrome, among other issues.
However, the struggle is not only biological or physical. It also can be deeply traumatic psychologically, and must be maneuvered sensitively with a professional treatment team. Weight restoration and discovering the body’s natural set point is absolutely essential, and is key to helping the brain to function properly, so that one can do the deeper emotional work that produces long-term recovery and well-being.
The beginning stages of weight restoration, before the brain has had time to get sufficiently re-nourished, are the most difficult. This is due to the fact that the body is changing faster than the mind. Restoration to full brain functioning is necessary before the work with a therapist on the underpinning psychological reasons for the disorder can be addressed and applied. This brief period of imbalance in the recovery process, however, is a short period of time relative to the entire journey, and so perseverance, encouragement and support on the part of the treatment team and the family is incredibly important.
If you are a family member or friend, how can you best support someone as they navigate through the difficult waters of trying to accept their new body? To begin, it may be helpful to try to understand what the individual is going through. They have likely established an entire constructed sense of self-worth, love and validation based on their body shape and size, and are now, basically, being asked by their treatment team to throw out that entire system of reward. It can be excruciating. It is not a matter of “just eating.”
Secondly, it is important to examine your own views, and perhaps biases, when it comes to weight, shape and health. We have been so programmed by society to see some bodies as “healthy” and others as “not healthy,” even when it is logically impossible to do so if we are not the individual’s primary care physician or general practitioner. Size is not an adequate measure of health. Practice body acceptance for yourself and those around you and set a good example for your loved one by valuing people for more than just their weight or appearance.
Lastly, know that this is a phase, and encourage the person to persevere through the process, promising that it WILL get better. At this point, what they need the most is hope. Hope that their brain will catch up with their body and that by continuing in therapy and emotional exploration into the root causes of the illness, it will get easier–the agonizing self-criticism and perhaps self-hate, will lessen. But, it is a process that takes time.
Weight restoration, for all its physical and psychological hurdles, needs to be done slowly and carefully, under the close observation of a treatment team that specializes in eating disorders. Eating Disorders are complex and for all the emphasis on it being a mental health/behavioral health issue (which it is), for the mind to respond to the hard work of therapy, it must be nourished properly. Radical body acceptance, unconditional love and support are the key to helping your loved one heal through this process. It is also incredibly rewarding to see the mind and the eyes start to change as the body is re-nourished. When the person in recovery can truly, and sincerely, begin to reach a point where they are grateful for and proud of their new body, one in harmony and balance, and restored to new life.