Hear Me Out: The Importance of Listening in Helping People with Eating Disorders

Many of us are familiar with eating disorders. We might know someone who has refused to touch meals or kept secret stashes of food in their rooms. Sometimes, even if we want to help or intervene, it’s hard without knowing the best approach.

A person suffering from an eating disorder will go through several stages on the journey to recovery – from detection and diagnosis to inpatient admission, partial hospitalization programs, and other more or less intensive forms of management. Medical professionals cannot always be present every step of the way. Since these disorders can warp a person’s relationship with the very nutrition that is essential to life, it is important for their friends and family to become involved and supportive.

Overcoming misconceptions with understanding

Although our collective awareness of eating disorders has come a long way in recent years, social misconceptions continue to persist. For instance, people with anorexia are instantly labeled vain, binge eaters greedy. When people around you exhibit such bias that they dismiss your condition and the symptoms you are feeling, it becomes difficult to even admit that you are suffering.

Not only does this stigma delay a proper and early diagnosis of the condition, it further spurs negative emotions and can trigger an escalating, downward spiral of worsening behavior.

Treatment can save patients, but improving understanding and encouraging open attitudes will prevent many cases from getting out of hand.

Listening as a key skill

people in a group therapy

An often overlooked component of any social interaction is the skill of active listening. In fact, it is seldom taught or recognized as a formal skill – and yet listening makes up 45% of our everyday communication. It is possible that in a world dominated by social media and its emphasis on expressing the individual identity, many people have under-developed listening skills.

If listening is so fundamental to regular conversation and interactions between healthy people, then it is even more vital to those who suffer from an illness and are unable to express themselves due to fear, neglect, or any other reasons. According to Corinne Jansen, in her job as a chief listening officer for hospitals in the Netherlands, her listening to patients gave them a sense of healing and being involved as a human being. Even though patients might have family and friends, if no one is truly listening, they cannot share their stories which may lead to better diagnosis and treatment.

The good news is that listening, like any skill, can be developed. And most of us have the opportunity to practice every day. With an open mind, and refraining from judgment, we can understand the essence of what a person is saying. This skill helps us to build bridges and establish genuine connections with others, which is the foundation for someone to open up about their concerns and what they are feeling.

Be engaged and supportive

With an improved listening skill, you can better understand others who may be suffering in silence. Not only does listening create a channel for the patient to express themselves to you, but it also creates trust and allows you to give feedback in a positive way. Telling someone to stop thinking negative thoughts or engaging in harmful behavior can come off the wrong way, but not if it comes from someone you trust.

We all play a key role in helping our loved ones recover from eating disorders. There will be many other factors to consider, and steps to take in the treatment process. But true listening is the basic step in building the necessary understanding and relationship on which recovery is founded.

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