Dance Health

First, Do No Harm – How to help when you see signs of an eating disorder

eating disorder

It’s a sad reality that eating disorders in dancers are common enough to have become cliche. Dance Informa discussed this is in a recent article, and went on with insights on how to recognize if you might be developing thought patterns and behaviors that are precursors to eating disorders. That self-awareness is incredibly important. But what if you see these signs in a fellow dancer, student or dancer who is your son or daughter? Or if such a disorder has progressed to something fully diagnosable?

On the one hand, no one wants to see loved ones hurt themselves, or look back with regret, asking, “What could I have done?”, or thinking, “If I had only.” On the other hand, we also want those we care about to be in the driver’s seat of their own life. Furthermore, forcing those with eating disorders to eat normally or applying hyper-surveillance (such as listening in at the door of the bathroom with those showing signs of bulimia) can make symptoms worse. It’s a delicate balance to strike. It’s one reason among many why mental health professionals regard these disorders as some of the most difficult mental health disorders to treat. Read on for tips on how to strike such a balance.

Don’t force; pause and listen instead.

Dominique Percy, MA in Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy and service coordinator at Crestwood Wellness and Recovery Center in Redding, California, explains, “I‘ve found that pressuring a person to eat and focusing on their weight makes the eating disorder and therapeutic attempts to address it worse.” A more effective first reaction, she says, is a question: why? What is leading this person to stop giving his/her body what it needs to stay healthy, perform at its best and thrive overall?  

“What I’ve learned is that an eating disorder can sometimes be linked to a person using it to gain a sense of control in their life,” says Percy. “[The] person feels a sense of losing or having lost control in some aspect of their life.” She describes how most often, one’s weight is not what the person has a problem with; it’s just something that he/she can control – through what he/she eats (or doesn’t eat), how much he/she exercises, and behaviors such as taking laxatives and purging.

Weight thus becomes a tool of control in the face of perceived lack of control in another area of life. Percy adds that for dancers in particular, this can be a competitive environment and the stress of relentless striving for perfection for more and more – a higher leap, cleaner turns, being cast in that dream role. Some level of consistent self-motivation is crucial for living a fulfilling and successful life as an artist. But, like with anything else, there can be too much of a good thing. Bringing this mindful and inquisitive mindset to interactions with those whom you suspect are developing an eating disorder can help avoid defensiveness. The person will likely feel heard, seen and valued, rather than micro-managed, criticized and antagonized.   

That will help keep the conversation open, and you learning more about what the person has been experiencing. It’s important to stop short of acting like the person’s therapist if you’re not a licensed mental health professional. Immediate family relationships can also make things sticky and complicated, and even impede the treatment process. But, with boundaries properly respected, what you may learn in these conversations can allow you to contribute to the person’s treatment through what you may be able to share with clinicians. It can also help you to make important treatment decisions, if that may be your role, such as if a person should go into a certain treatment program and which one.

Put the ball in his/her court.

“Reinforcing [people’s] right to dictate their life choices and making their wellness their responsibility is one of the best ways to approach the issue of an eating disorder,” Percy asserts. As an example to back this belief, she describes how she was there as a support for a client who refused to eat. Percy attempted to help the client “lower her stressors”, she says, and listened to her concerns. One day, seemingly out of the blue, the client decided to eat. Sustenance from a medical tube was keeping her alive up to that point. It was that day when she – as only she could have done – decided to take back how she was contributing to (or robbing herself of, rather) her own wellness. Percy describes how the client has gained back 20 pounds.

Every case of an eating disorder is unique, and it doesn’t always progress that way toward healing. But these essential truths are consistent. In a similar way, refocusing people on what they value most can lead them to take back their wellness. Again, forcefulness isn’t helpful – and can actually be harmful. Yet gently and kindly, remaining open to listening and understanding, you can help people in these cases remember what truly matters to them. Through such conversation, for example, such a person can come to recall how much he/she used to love dancing full-out for hours of classes (for which the person may not seem to have the energy anymore, after starting to restrict their eating or binge and purge).  

It’s also wise to be prepared with knowledge and supportive resources. Read up, as much as you might be able, on these disorders through reputable sources such as The National Eating Disorders Association and Eating Disorders Hope. When it comes to finding treatment programs, “[contact] that person’s county mental health department,” Percy suggests. “They should have resources in that person’s area.”

It’s a significant challenge to see people we care about developing signs of an eating disorder and responding in ways that redirect them back to healthier thoughts and behaviors. But there is no value that we can put on human life. We must therefore do the best we can, while also remembering our own needs. Those whom we love, and might be truly hurting, need us at our best.

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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