Eating disorders involve problems with the perception and consumption of food, and it affects more than just individuals; family members can readily feel its effects. Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, which involves drastic reductions in food intake, and bulimia nervosa, which entails episodes of binge-eating followed by laxative consumption or induced vomiting.
People who have eating disorders are typically obsessed with attaining a certain weight or body physique, and many have strongly unfavorable views of their bodies. This negative self-image pushes them to take extreme measures to achieve their desired shape. Without treatment, bulimia and other eating disorders can cause permanent damage to the body as well as progression into more mental disorders such as depression.
Eating disorders such as bulimia typically affect teens and young adults, and the family is thus directly affected by its consequences. Family members might blame themselves or feel guilty about the condition, but it is important to realize that it is not their fault unless they fuel the negative self-image of the person.
Family members are at the best position to detect bulimia, offer support, and deliver treatment, so they are one of the key players in the person’s recovery. However, some treatment options do not consider the crucial roles that the family plays, underscoring the need for greater awareness of how the family can help against bulimia.
The Basics Of Bulimia
Bulimia is a potentially dangerous mental condition that can cause lasting physical and psychological damage. As mentioned before, it occurs in people that have an extreme desire to lose weight and to attain their desired body image. It is important to note here that they might still perceive themselves as too large or heavy even when they are already dangerously underweight. The condition distorts their ability to assess their self-image accurately, and this can be compounded by peer pressure, especially if other people constantly bully them for being too fat.
Bulimia nervosa afflicts approximately 4% of women and 0.5% of men in the US. Nearly 4% of those suffering from bulimia will die from the disease and nearly all struggling with the illness experience serious medical and/ or emotional effects. — Alexis Conason Psy.D.
People with bulimia will freely eat food instead of starving themselves like those with anorexia nervosa. However, their mindset is that they need to remove the calories they have consumed, which they usually do by inducing themselves to vomit, taking large doses of laxatives, or exercising vigorously for extended periods. Bulimia is different from other eating disorders in that many people who have the condition have normal weights or are slightly overweight, which is why observations from family members are essential in helping to get a proper diagnosis.
How Bulimia Can Impact Family Relationships
The condition heavily impacts the family members of those who have bulimia. They might feel guilty for allowing it to progress or believe that they have given inadequate support to their loved one. While many of the causes of bulimia involve how the family has treated the loved one in the past, it is not usually the intention of family members to have their loved one develop bulimia. Unless family members have been intentionally mistreating their loved one or have displayed violent behaviors, they are not to blame. However, this does not apply to dysfunctional families who have created toxic conditions that allowed extreme insecurity to take hold.
The behaviors might get downplayed or even flat out denied by the person who is trying to sustain them. — Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA
Other families are affected in different ways by having a member who has bulimia. Some may not acknowledge the mental condition, resorting to admonishing or punishing their loved one for engaging in behaviors which they think are foolish and easily controlled. Some may also react with anger due to the impact of bulimia on their lives; treatment can be expensive and time-consuming, and the condition can strain family relationships. Others may be ashamed, given the stigma that surrounds mental health still exists for some people. These responses may not be helpful to the person with bulimia, so treatments must be able to address them to ensure better outcomes.
Treatment options for those who have bulimia often include constant monitoring as well as the administration of anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication, since both anxiety and depression tend to go along with bulimia. Serious cases might require hospitalization to ensure that the person is still receiving proper nutrition. For less dangerous situations, intensive outpatient monitoring may be a viable option, and this will involve monitoring and vigilance on the part of the family to ensure that recovery takes place.
Denying the problem and thereby denying its effects are not uncommon. Patients sometimes lie also about the severity of their condition, further hampering the selection of appropriate treatment options. — Judy Scheel Ph.D., L.C.S.W., CEDS
A patient may also undergo cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of treatment seeks to change the harmful behaviors of people with bulimia by helping them control their condition and identify strategies that work for them. Psychotherapy sessions may also be given to family members, educating them on proper ways to reach out to their affected loved one. The therapist will teach them how to care for the patient actively, and they will also address any lingering family issues. This intervention allows the family to become a more effective support system for their loved one, further hastening recovery and preventing relapses.