How to care for yourself as you're caring for others

Posted 22/11/2017

For the first time, Beat are hosting a two-day conference designed especially for those who are directly caring for someone with an eating disorder in either a personal or professional capacity. Through Frontline, we hope to equip attendees with practical skills that will help them in their caring role.

But it isn’t only the person suffering from an eating disorder who needs support and compassion. Carers themselves need this too, not just for the sake of the person they’re caring for but for their own wellbeing as well. Carers can experience anxiety and low mood, a sense of not being able to provide the right care for the person they’re looking after, and a feeling that they must provide care alone and do not have support. In a survey carried out in 2014 by Carers UK, nearly half said that they did not feel society cares about them. Our own recently released research shows the impact of eating disorders on the family members of the sufferer to be enormous. It is essential that more is done to support carers directly in their role and in terms of their wellbeing as individuals.

A talk by Sam Clark-Stone, a mental health nurse and founder of the Gloucestershire Eating Disorders Service, addressed the needs of carers and provided things that carers can do to look after themselves at the same time as they’re looking after somebody else. His suggestions are based on both evidence-based guidance and his own observations following over 30 years of work in the field of eating disorders.

  • Identifying specific sources of stress and recognising the early warning signs can be helpful in managing it. There may be aspects of stressful situations that you’re not able to change, but there may be things you can, so recognising these separate aspects can help you to put solutions in place.
  • Constructive communication is important. Remember, it is not selfish to have your own wants, needs, and opinions. Respect the rights and feelings of others, but be clear, direct, and specific about your own feelings and needs as well. The use of “I” statements that focus on what you need to change can be more useful than “you” statements that may feel like an accusation and cause defensiveness.
  • It can be hard not to take it upon yourself to try to immediately “fix” the problem of the eating disorder. Unfortunately, while recovery is entirely possible, the path is often a slow one and not a straight line, and the desire to find a quick fix can be an impossible burden to take on. Listening to the sufferer and walking the path towards recovery with them is a good way to support them, but also lessens the pressure you’re placing on yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make a list of tasks that people can potentially help you with – depending on the exact situation, this may be practical day-to-day things, or direct help with supporting the person you’re caring for. This allows you to ask for help with specific tasks based on the specific interests and capabilities of your friends and family members, or for them to choose which things they feel most equipped to help out with.
  • When thinking about talking to clinicians about the care the person with the eating disorder is receiving, write down questions ahead of time to make sure that you’re able to address your most important concerns. You could take somebody you trust with you to help you out if there are questions you find particularly uncomfortable. Letting the clinician know ahead of time what you’d like to address during the appointment can also help them to plan how long you will need to discuss everything.
  • Listen to your own emotions, as they’re useful to help you understand what you need. For example, if you find you’re not enjoying things that you used to, this could be a sign that you need to seek further support of your own.
  • Take time out for yourself. Studies have suggested that the average carer plays a caring role eight to ten hours a day, and of course, concern for the sufferer doesn’t simply switch off when they’re not required to take on this role. It’s important to time out to just focus on you, whether you do some exercise, try out a new hobby, rediscover an old interest, or simply practice some quick mindfulness activities when you get the chance.

Every person who is caring for someone with an eating disorder will experience different circumstances, and there is no one suggestion that will suit absolutely everybody. But figuring out what works for you so that you can take care of your own wellbeing is both good for yourself and something that will put you in a better position to take care of somebody else.

Follow our updates from the Frontline conference on Twitter under #EDFrontline17

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