If you’ve ever been on a plane, you will have received instructions that in the event of an emergency "You must fit your own oxygen mask before helping others”. This makes sense because if you can’t breathe you aren’t going to be much help to someone else.
This premise is equally important when supporting someone with an eating disorder. It is common for support people to put their own needs last, but it is just as important to look after your own mental and physical wellbeing in order to continue to support your loved one.
No matter how much you care about your loved one and how much you want them to get better, you are not superhuman. You have physical and emotional needs which if ignored can become overwhelming and seriously impact your life. You also have other responsibilities and areas of your life that require your attention.
Over time the stress from the various pressures and demands you are facing can build up and add onto each other. Some common warning signs that you might be experiencing burnout include:
Strategies that might be helpful to deal with or ultimately avoid burnout:
Getting social and psychological support.
Getting adequate sleep. Do not underestimate the difference that being well rested can have on your physical and mental health. We know that supporting someone with an eating disorder might mean that your sleep patterns are disrupted, in particular because of your worry.
Take a break for a short or medium term. This might be in the form of sharing support tasks with others.
Go back to the plan with your loved one and/or their treatment providers – talk about the type of support you have been providing and whether it is sustainable to continue.
Stacey, who supported her daughter through her eating disorder recovery, said that she started doing a few things for herself again once her daughter had recovered and moved out of the house. She realised just how much she had missed out on and how empty she had become because she had invested so much into her daughter and her treatment for such a long period of time.
“I didn’t realise how drained and empty my bucket really was until we on the other side of recovery.” - Stacey, mother of daughter with an eating disorder
People who support or care for a person with a mental illness can be at risk of developing mental health problems. The practical and emotional demands of supporting a loved one with an eating disorder can be immense at times, so it is important to think about your own wellbeing too.
It can be difficult to manage extra demands if you are not paying attention to your own health. Looking after your physical and mental health will have a positive impact on how you think and feel.
Eat a balanced and healthy diet
Reduce alcohol and other drugs
Make sure you get enough sleep and rest
Make time for relaxation or mindfulness
Maintaining your own hobbies
It is important to take regular short breaks as well as scheduling time just for yourself. Make a list of activities you enjoy and make time for them (e.g. watching a movie, playing sport, gardening, catching up with a friend).
When Stacey was in Melbourne for treatment for her daughter, she got in contact with an Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) support group. She found that being able to listen to what everybody else was going through was a big step for her as she wasn’t able to get that kind of information from anyone else. Stacey spent a lot of time on her own in Melbourne, doing her own hobbies to give herself a break to feel more refreshed and better able to manager her daughter’s behavior.
“I encourage anybody caring for someone to do something that you want to do, on a regular basis.” - Stacey, mother of daughter with an eating disorder
You may find there are times when you are completely overwhelmed. It may be helpful to seek professional help for your own psychological and emotional wellbeing. This will help you work through any issues you are experiencing in your role supporting someone with an eating disorder, which will in turn help you support the person more effectively
“I really encourage parents going through this to connect with a lived experience group, because they get you, they hear you and nothing shocks them them." - Stacey, mother of daughter with an eating disorder
Just as the person you care for will need a strong support network, so will you. Some people find it helpful to link with others who have had similar experiences. Think about people in your life who are good listeners and understand you, and make sure you schedule time with them. Consider joining a face to-face or online support network to share experiences with others:
Strive Carer Support Groups \ Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) run support groups at various locations around Australia. They also have active Facebook support through their strive Facebook groups.
The Butterfly Foundation Carer Support Groups \ Eating disorder carer support groups online and around Australia.
EDV Support Groups\ Eating Disorders Victoria provides support groups across Victoria.
EDQ The Carer Connect Support Group\ Eating Disorders Queensland have support groups in Queensland.
BodyMatters Parents, Carers and Partners Support Group\ Face to face support groups run in Sydney by BodyMatters Australiasia.
F.E.A.S.T. Peer Support \ F.E.A.S.T. can link you with other parents via phone or email, help you find other parents in your community and offers online peer support forums.
If you would like to know more about the resources available to you and hear advice from those who have had the same experience, InsideOut Institute for Eating Disorders has created a new online program for you. SupportED was developed for anyone supporting a loved one with an eating disorder.
To find out more, head to InsideOut Institute
If you or a loved one needs support, please head to our website or call the Butterfly National Helpline 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).