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Eating disorders (young people)

Coping with an eating disorder and self-help

Young people we spoke with found different ways of coping with an eating disorder. People had found strategies to help them overcome the urge to binge, to become comfortable with eating, or to tackle other issues such as low confidence or social anxiety. (For more see ‘Working towards recovery’).

Getting creative

Creative activities, such as writing, drawing, singing, listening to and playing music, helped many to cope. People often wrote diaries and said that it was important to get negative thoughts out. Diaries were also helpful in tracking changes in moods. A few people blogged and described it as a great way to write anonymously about the personal experiences that they struggled to tell their family and friends.

 

Jasmin wrote diaries for herself but also on her own recovery website. She found it helpful to...

Jasmin wrote diaries for herself but also on her own recovery website. She found it helpful to...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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I’d like to write, because that, that’s something that’s helped me a lot with recovery, or even, from the very beginning I’ve always written about things and just letting my feelings out or like, until I write them down it’s almost like there are these same thoughts that will go over and over in my head and once I write them down they’re out.
 
Do you write diaries only to yourself or do you let people see them?
 
Mainly to myself but I’ve started a website because I found recovery websites helped me a lot because I was actually hearing from other people that had been through the same experiences and they’re saying, “This has helped.” And, you know, I, they just have a, lot more ideas about things that might just kind of help you get, because if you’ve been through it yourself then you can say, you know, “I tried this and this helped me.” and I kinda wanted to be able to do that for other people too. So I’ve started one and I have put some of diary entries on there throughout recovery because I think that’s one thing you don’t, when you’re in recovery you don’t, have any idea, you don’t know what recovery’s going to be like.
 
Everyone, it’s completely different for everyone but it would be nice to know, I always kinda thought, you know, I, you can’t ever be told how long recovery’s going to take because it takes people years or just, you know, it’s so different. But just to have some idea of what it might involve and so I’ve just put on, diary entries from recovery just to kind of show the whole ups and downs because I don’t think that’s, sometimes you go in recovery thinking ‘things are just going to get better and better’ and going in knowing that you’re going to have so many ups and downs I think would be good to know, so I’ve kind of tried to share that with people so that they can see.
 
 

Keeping a diary of his moods helped Nico notice patterns in his moods and eating and gave him the...

Keeping a diary of his moods helped Nico notice patterns in his moods and eating and gave him the...

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Male
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What I would do also which kind of, it might sound a bit weird, but while I was in the inpatients’ unit, and the best I could ‘cos I was very drowsy a lot of the time, I would always go to Paperchase and buy me like just a little diary book that I could draw things in about how I was feeling. And then kind of that kind of, when I come out I was looking back at kind of how low I was, ‘cos I’d got the help and that was like, “Wow I really was that low.” And then every day I’d write in how I was feeling, just like a diary. Or what had happened that day. But also like how I was feeling mood wise. And then it would show like a pattern in my moods. But like generally kind of if it was low over a period of like a few weeks, or it was high then I would make sure that I would look back for say like, for the past two weeks every night to see if like it’s, if my mood was changing. And if my mood was like, had the slightest change I would start to kind of do a lot of things to kind of pick myself up more. And I think that was one of the main things that kind of gave me the self, like the self, power of the self, like will power if you like, to kind of be able to kind of move on from being so low, being kind of, having these eating problems. That was also one of the other things ‘cos I could trace back how a lot of people, when they’re a lot low, they don’t know they’re so low in the sense that kind of they’re feeling that low. But so you need to be able to look back at yourself which helps.

 

Georgia loved blogging. She liked the anonymity and the helpful tips that people gave her.

Georgia loved blogging. She liked the anonymity and the helpful tips that people gave her.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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I think like writing stuff down. I know everyone says it and like writing stuff down on paper I never really found helped me, usually ‘cos I get bored after the first sentence and just give up. But like stuff on the internet like just you know writing on there, like you can be completely anonymous, and that helped quite a bit ‘cos it was like other people there that can support you. And you don’t have to; you can give a fake name it doesn’t matter.
 
What do you think about it is particularly helpful for you as a sort of coping mechanism or whatever?
 
Just getting stuff out there, and like other people like, if you’ve got a problem like other people kind of suggest things that you could do to help you. So I find it better than just writing in the diary that’ll just sit in a drawer and I won’t really do anything with.
 
And like at first it was kind of completely anonymous, like no-one like didn’t even know what country I was from, so it depends like on how much you want to kind of reveal. So it’s all kind of up to you and like all in your control.
 
And are you completely anonymous?
 
Not anymore. But I was like I don’t think anyone could track me down from it, like all they know is my name but like it’s up to you how much information, like some people like post where they’re from and stuff and like you’re in control kind of what you want to write down.
 
 

In addition to writing, Anna kept a sketch book in which she drew about her experiences.

In addition to writing, Anna kept a sketch book in which she drew about her experiences.

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
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Did you have another way of communicating your thoughts or, did you write, did you do art at that point, did you, is there another outlet if you didn’t want to necessarily talk to people?
 
Yeah. I’ve always kept books and sketch books and things like that but again there’s always [laughs], there’s always a fear of, “Oh no other people will see.” I don’t know what this, it’s a huge fear of other people knowing about… anything unclear so yeah I kept sketch books, and art…I remember throwing away a lot of books at some, at some point because you know, all that’s behind me kind of, throwing things away but it’s only a book [laughs]. Yeah I would draw, draw pictures and keep, you know, keep some that’s, keep kind of, I remember keeping kind of mark book, almost, it’s almost like marking how, you know, how you’ve been if you’ve not eaten anything, keeping it all on paper. Actually they probably would be really interesting papers to look at but I think I threw a lot of them away but that’s probably fine.
 

Many people described listening to music, as well as playing an instrument and writing music, as important processes for coping. People said music helped them relax and performing could help boost their confidence. Elene described singing as her “saving grace”; it gave her a sense of worth and being accepted. Some performed music publicly' Andrew played the drums and had toured with different bands and orchestras in America and China. He said gigging and the crowds gave him a “huge buzz”.
 

Steph played the flute and the piano on the hospital ward. It was an important outlet and helped...

Steph played the flute and the piano on the hospital ward. It was an important outlet and helped...

Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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Again both the hospitals I was in had pianos so I was able to practice my piano. I was allowed out to my lessons, my piano lesson, and my flute lesson. The last hospital admission I wasn’t because I was too ill, but eventually I got back to it when I got out. So I carried on with my lessons, I managed to get, finish all my exams, you know, my music exams, and I took my flute in with me in all my hospitals [laughs], you know and I just used to play away to myself. It was a great outlet, and even like when I was at home, even though I wasn’t able to go to school or anything, I, sometimes I would still manage to go to orchestra or wind band and I would see my friends there, and they would come to visit me, you know, and just, so it kept me in the loop of a social circle, and it also kept my brain active and it just gave me a relief to everything that else that was going on, because when I go and play the piano, I can just forget about everything else. So it was really important to keep that up. It’s been my livelihood, you know, since I’ve been ill. When I’ve been ill that has been the one thing that I’ve been doing, so it’s been a great outlet.
 
Did you feel at, at any point that you didn’t want to play music or that you were too ill?
 
No. It got to the stage where I was struggling with playing the flute and the piano, because my piano teacher even says now she says, “Now Stephanie, you’re playing as like a different person ‘cause you’ve the strength behind you now,” she said, “Whereas when you were ill you couldn’t hammer it out on the piano [laughs],” and then my flute, I would get really light-headed playing so I wasn’t, I wasn’t, because I stand when I play the flute.
 
And I wasn’t able to do that for very long, so then, but then that was when I got taken back in, so that kind of all sorted itself.
 
But it was quite interesting because when I was in hospital, you know, I would go to the person next door and I’d say, “Look, if you don’t want to hear me playing, just come and knock on my door,” I was like, I really don’t mind. But everybody says, “No we love hearing you play,” they says, “It’s great, you know,” and the cleaners used to just come along and walk past the door just to listen and everything, so it, it, everybody seemed to enjoy it which was quite good, useful for me so.
 
Lauren wrote a song “Hold on” about letting go of her eating disorder that she’s played at gigs. For Nico, listening to music could make him feel worse but learning to play a new instrument was like finding a new way to cope.
 
Getting social

For people with an eating disorder, social situations can cause feelings of worry and eating in public could be particularly stressful. People can lack self-confidence and try to avoid social events, only to become more isolated (for more see ‘Social life and public places’). Learning to become more social was often a major part of recovery. People said that being open and letting other people know what they were going through made a big difference. Jasmin said, once you open up, you may be surprised to realise how many people care. David said it was good to listen to his friends because they reminded him of what was “normal Friends could help challenge people’s firmly held thoughts and beliefs.” Elizabeth describes how her friend helps challenge her thoughts:

“One of my friends in particular is very like maternal almost. She looks after me and says stuff like, in a very kind of honest way; “Lizzie that’s very strange that you think it’s not okay to have fun. That’s not what normal people think.” Because for such a long time I thought that was the norm. And to have that challenged is quite useful.” Elizabeth

Knowing the importance of being listened to, many people volunteered to support other people going through similar problems. Volunteering in itself could become a key part of their own recovery. People had volunteered through Beat, Body Gossip, Men Get Eating Disorders Too and YoungMinds. A few people had also started their own campaigns, to put their own experiences to use and spread awareness of eating disorders. Jasmin' ‘Through the clouds’ and Hannah Z and Rebekah' ‘Hungry for Change’. 
 
(For more see ‘Working towards recovery’).
 
Relaxation

People often had busy lives and described themselves as very ‘driven’. They had to learn how to take time off. Relaxation meant different things to different people. Some had learnt relaxation techniques; others just had a bath or went out for a coffee and to people watch. Music and writing could be relaxing too. Some had learnt yoga or breathing exercises, sometimes from workshops they attended during a hospital stay.
 

Zoe found yoga and meditation useful to help her relax and lift her moods. At first it was...

Zoe found yoga and meditation useful to help her relax and lift her moods. At first it was...

Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
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I have done a MBCT course in mindfulness based cognitive therapy, which is kind of targeting more depression which I initiated myself. There was a course running and I qualified for it. 
 
What was that like?
 
Interesting. Very difficult for someone like me who’s very driven and like to be doing and busy all the time and to then suddenly have to meditate for forty minutes it was quite different and trying to incorporate, as part of it you have to practice a lot, trying to incorporate practices into my daily routine, which involves a lot of work and, you know, socialising and things, it’s quite difficult. But it was it was interesting and it’s given me another sort of tool that is useful and, you know, when I did it I was fine, you know, quite well. So if ever I do feel my mood going down it might be something that I pick up on again.
 
But it’s not something you kind of at the moment, incorporate in your routine?
 
Not really.
 
It’s more sort of...
 
It should be ‘cos it is something you’re meant to keep up.
 
Rather than when things…
 
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, but I have as part of it though, you sort of done some yoga practices since doing it I then, I now do regular yoga so that’s still a part of it and but it’s just another way just to have a bit of sort of time where you’re just, you’re not doing anything for any reason. It’s just like an hour of kind of, I don’t know, being in the moment or whatever. You know, not actually doing anything so it’s good for me and I think that has come through that sort of mindfulness path where I first experienced a bit of yoga and that sort of therapy, yeah.
 
Animals could be an important source of company and support. Spending time with a pet was enjoyable and, for some, the only positive relationship they experienced in everyday life. Jamie found it therapeutic to look after horses, his cats and other animals. Some loved walking their dogs but had to be careful not to do too much exercise.
 

Katie's dog really helped her. He was always happy and Katie didn't have to worry about upsetting...

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Katie's dog really helped her. He was always happy and Katie didn't have to worry about upsetting...

Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 13
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We had the dog which I got, when did I get the dog… I got him I think after about a year of seeing, of going to outpatient treatment because I managed to persuade my parents that it would be a really good idea. And he did really help me, he was, he is, and like having, having the dog it was because I already had a cat but I’d always wanted a dog. And we got him as a puppy and that was, he was really good. And like even now, still, because you have all these well at the time there’s like all these people who are making, well not, not intentionally making me feel guilty but, you know, I felt guilty that I was upsetting them but he was always happy and, you know, waggy tail and, so he was great and he was a good help.
 
Distractions

Many people found out about techniques that could help them decrease an urge to binge or self-harm, or ease obsessive thoughts and calorie counting. Some people took up activities that required a lot of concentration. It also helped people to make sure they were not in situations where they could easily engage in habits of the eating disorder. Nico said he tried to be in a public place if he had an urge to purge so would take his dog out for a walk. People had also been given practical advice about how to reduce self-harming.
 

Charlotte describes 'ice-diving' which has helped her with the urge to binge or self-harm.

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Charlotte describes 'ice-diving' which has helped her with the urge to binge or self-harm.

Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
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There’s one particular skill in DBT which is called “Ice Diving,” which is when you’re very distressed, putting your face into a sink or a bowl of water with ice in, and you put your head in it. So it’s a bit like holding ice, but apparently the follicles on your face are meant to be more sensitive and it just gives you that real kind of shock and blast that I would either get from self-harming or binging. And that has worked for me on a few occasions. I guess it just, you have to get in there quite quickly to kind of prepare a bowl of water with ice in, and I think there’s also a couple of breathing exercises that work for me when I’m distressed, but I don’t know what the magic answer is. I don’t think there is one.

Learning to be positive about yourself

Developing ways to be proactive, think positively and improve self-worth were important in recovery and coping. Some people had created “positive” walls, cards, lists or compliments-books to remind them of their reasons to get better. Annabelle stuck her bone scan results on the wall to remind her to “keep going”.
 

Lauren created positive cards and a positive wall reminding her of why to get better. She also...

Lauren created positive cards and a positive wall reminding her of why to get better. She also...

Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 20
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One of the great things I had was like a sort of positive card book so I made these lovely little cards with reasons of why I wanted to get better. Simple things like, “I want to go dancing again.” So I had a picture of me dancing. We had a wee picture of this wee boy that my mum looked after. As we were just saying, I want to have children. Things like that and I used to carry it around in my bag all the time and whenever I was having a sort of difficult time I’d just whip them out and it reminded me why I was going through this, why I was gonna to get better. Diary writing was always very good for, just writing down your thoughts and if you felt you didn’t have somebody to talk to you could write it in your diary. 
 
Positive kind of wall of just different things again, to remind me of my friends in my life that I was gonna get back, which was really good, and just generally making time for yourself and relaxation that I found writing songs was a big help for me and I, I wrote kind of one song specifically that was all about my experience and I perform it now quite a bit. It just, it’s kind of like my sort of reminder of where I don’t want to go back to and also a kind of goodbye, in a way, to my illness and sort of singing it to the, to the illness and saying, “No way you’re coming back.” Kind of thing and just relaxation, just listening to music and, you know, making time for yourself I think is important. But all these kind of things can really just help and remind you, it’s like a constant reminder of why you want to get better.
 
 

Rachel made herself a compliments book to record compliments from people. She reads it when...

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Rachel made herself a compliments book to record compliments from people. She reads it when...

Age at interview: 24
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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I came up with the idea of a compliments book whilst on holiday in Rome with my mam last year. I had been receiving lots of compliments from men every day and our last night two boys even gave me roses in the restaurant because they thought I was beautiful. Since I think I am ugly, it was a lovely self-esteem boost for me and I decided I would write compliments down. I write them on one page and on the other I put a nice picture of myself. I read it when I am feeling down. It does help but at the same time I have managed to fill two whole books and yet still I am not happy with who I am.
For many, there was a clear link between an eating disorder and low mood or depression. They found it useful to try and focus on things that lifted their mood (for more see ‘Working towards recovery’). People who tended to be “worriers” and consumed by negative thoughts talked about learning to live in the moment and taking things “day-by-day”.
 

Mindfulness reduced Fiona-Grace's anxieties and helped her focus on the present.

Mindfulness reduced Fiona-Grace's anxieties and helped her focus on the present.

Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I did mindfulness I read a lot of books about mindfulness that were really helpful because that that was a bit of a fault of mine, I never lived in the moment, I was always living for tomorrow, so I think I learnt to be a lot more patient through doing that.
 
Can you tell me a bit more about more about it, what it means to you or?
 
To be mindful?
 
Yes.
 
It’s to focus on the current moment, like the now and to recognise how you feel at the time, what you’re doing at the time, not to think about what you’re worrying about tomorrow or what you’re about to do tomorrow because none of that matters at the time and that if you’re worried about something that’s in the future, if there’s nothing you can do about it right now, then there’s no point in worrying about it. So it was just so sensible and it just, it really helped to rationalise things and put things into perspective and to reduce my anxiety.
 
Some people found help in religion. Ewan said, “At the worst point of illness it [faith] saved my life”. Nico said it was important to become “self-resourceful” and find ways of coping that work for each individual. He also said it’s important to find new things to try.
 

Nico describes the benefits of having many different coping mechanisms.

Nico describes the benefits of having many different coping mechanisms.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Male
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It’s about finding resources to kind of deal with it like you mentioned yeah. And finding them resources kind of somehow masks the problem, in the sense that kind of you somehow wean your way off. And I’d say all the little things that I have done, whether it’s blogging, keeping a diary, trying new things, taking medication counselling, psychotherapy. Every single one of them has been like an umbrella, each part has added to the support that I’ve had and each part of that has helped me to develop a new strategy. So for example if I mix the psychotherapy with the diary, the psychotherapy, the diary will enable me to track how I’m doing for a week to week, to a day to day to a year to year like kind of sort of thing. And I can translate that into the psychotherapy which enables me to pinpoint things up, pinpoint things up. 
 
So everything, you need to, you need to try as many things which as soon as you start trying new things your confidence will grow and you will feel more confident in doing things. And the one thing, and when your confidence does get knocked, which will happen, it’s about kind of remembering what you did before to pick yourself back up. Which when you’re in that low state you often can’t. So you’ve got to kind of, I’m going back to the diary, but you’ve got to kind of take it day by day again, because it’s like two steps forward one step back. You’re going to get there, but it’s going to be slow ‘cos as with everything when someone’s had a broken leg it takes time to repair and even when they get the cast taken off, it’s often still broken, repairing very slowly, and it’s often still a painful repair but it gets better. And as soon as it is repaired it’s always likely to kind of break again, because it’s already once been broken. But it can always be repaired.
 
 

Ewan found comfort in religion. He has searched for God in his own way.

Ewan found comfort in religion. He has searched for God in his own way.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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When I was going through my worst stage that it I had a religious experience which converted me from atheism to Christianity. ‘Cos I used to be very outspoken against religion and
 
Really?
 
And I used to upset a lot of people about that. And since then it’s mainly been trying pursue I don’t know if you’ve heard it’s processed thought theology which is that bad things happen in life you have to accept that, but if you, if you try and do good things then they’ll have a knock on effect. It’s like the Buddhist way of thinking but with God in the equation.
 
But good will breed more good.
 
And my experience as well it was sort of being an example of that.
 
Do you actively, do you go to church? Or do you go to meetings?
 
Yeah I go to my church and youth group and things and although some of some theories are controversial still they go along with me.
 
And is your family religious? Do you come from that background at all?
 
My Mum’s family, my Dad’s family is not religious, but my Mum’s was a Methodist family that were kind of forced to be Christian. And she never was a real Christian until about the same time I changed, and that’s when we both kind of being born-again so to speak, as opposed to the established church we’ve more branched out to searching for God in our own way.
 


Last reviewed October 2018.
 
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