Last updated on October 6th, 2020
This is a section from Chapter 15 of 'Anorexia and other eating disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well'
This chapter is all about your wellbeing, your resilience, your strengths, so that you can cope right now and even flourish in the longer term. Whether you’re getting ready to serve a meal or trying to cope with emotional exhaustion, you will find resources here, and nourishment for your soul.
Supporting a kid through an eating disorder is said to be a marathon, not a sprint. Many of us cower in fear of the next storm because we only barely have our heads above water. We say, ‘I don’t know how much more I can take.’ We want stamina and endurance in order to keep going, and resilience so we can recover from knocks and move onwards and upwards with confidence.
I’m going to assume that you are now dealing with the day-to-day challenges of meals and that you have a tiny bit more time and energy to invest in your own mental wellbeing. If you’ve jumped straight to this chapter for emotional support and you have no idea what I mean by ‘self-compassion’, it might help to rewind to Chapter 13.
Developing resilience isn’t just about making you feel well, though that would be a good enough reason. It’s about being able to deal effectively with all the challenges you face at this difficult time – and that includes everyday things like your boiler breaking down and your aged aunt refusing to speak to you. If right now you believe your own wellbeing doesn’t matter, it’s still worth growing your emotional resources so that you can be in the best possible state for your child’s sake.
Eating disorders often rob our children of internal resources: it’s the people supporting them who open access to strength, hope, health and joy. That means mainly us, parents.
This doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time, and most of us have a lot of grieving to do. From online parents’ groups it’s evident that parents cry a lot, some have epiphanies after hitting rock bottom, and some have gradually grown stronger, wiser and more patient than ever before. It takes time to find our feet. It takes time to accept that our old coping mechanisms are not up to the job and to master a new set of tools.
As suffering is really not much fun, I hope that what follows will speed up your emotional journey a little.
[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]
Placing yourself at the centre of a wheel of awareness is an example of mindfulness, an ancient Eastern practice that is now embraced by psychotherapists. With mindfulness, you intentionally pay attention to your moment to moment experience, without judgement. More than that – and this is often forgotten – you do so with a compassionate and open heart. I think it is rash to expose yourself to difficult thoughts or emotions unless you also give yourself – or receive – kindness.
With mindfulness you bring your presence to what you're experiencing while you're experiencing it. You are stepping outside of your mind and into your body, taking a meta-perspective of what's going on internally: your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Mindfulness tends to quieten the mind and make space for your greater self, because as soon as you become aware of chatterbox thoughts, you’re not so busy thinking them. The point of mindfulness is to be fully yourself in everyday life, connected to yourself and to the world around you.
Earlier I told you about the concept of acceptance, and in Chapter 13 I described self-compassion. Acceptance, self-compassion, giving your child your compassionate presence, all involve mindfulness.
The more you use opportunities to be mindful, the more your brain creates new connections and new growth, making it more and more your natural way of being.[i] If you practice being mindful during activities you enjoy, not only are you training your brain, but you’re bringing stress hormones down, enhancing feel-good neurotransmitters and generally filling up your tank of wellbeing. For me this happens with music and dance. You can also train your mindfulness muscle by spending regular time in sitting meditation. There are many ways to meditate – focusing on the breath is only one of them (but remember to bring in the kindness element!). You can find courses and recordings to guide you through mindfulness, relaxation and compassion.
As this dad explains:
“The one thing I have done consistently over the years that has benefited me by far the most is a daily meditation practice. One of the side effects of meditation for me is seeing ‘thoughts as thoughts’. Thoughts weigh nothing … So … I recommend meditation, even if it is just five minutes in the morning. Sitting, eyes closed, counting breaths – that’s it.”
Coping in the moment
Feelings are in-the-moment things. In Chapter 13 I described them as waves that rise and subside. They pass. They transform into something else. Your emotions may be at rock bottom now but there is no way of predicting how they will be in ten minutes or in ten days. These days, the only certainty I have about my emotions is that they come and go, and the less I get them tangled up with my thoughts, the more likely they will move on.
When I realised that I was stressing out about the next year, the next week, or even the next hour, I decided to notice how, moment by moment, I was coping. The moment might need to be subdivided into units of milliseconds, so that I could tell myself, ‘Right now, this instant, I’m actually fine.’
You could notice that the only reality is the present moment. This instant. This instant in which you are living and breathing and in which the ground is under your feet. The past is gone; the future doesn’t yet exist.
I decided that if I could be fine in the present, even when things were horribly tough, I could trust I would most likely also be fine in future, present moments.
I wonder if you’ve ever done this with physical pain. You’ve bitten through a chunk of your tongue and it’s hurting like hell, but just now, this second, it’s bearable. And this second is OK too. And this next second. And you might even start noticing that the pain subsides, because it’s not aggravated by catastrophic thoughts.
Noticing that we are coping in the moment allows us to deal with our fears one step at a time. I love this sentence from the excellent book Parenting Your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance by Christopher McCurry:
“Sometimes all we need is just a glimpse of where to go and what to do, and we can take the next step – and then the next and then the next.”
Being in the moment
Once I’d noticed I could cope ‘in the moment’, I saw the benefits of being ‘in the moment’ whenever I could think of it. It helped me get less entangled in judgemental or fearful thoughts. Does present-moment mindfulness mean you can’t recall past events and plan the next activity? No. It means you are present to your experience, as you recall or plan. As you plan an event for tomorrow, your present-moment mindfulness brings you to notice any happy or tense reactions. You’ll notice how by pausing, with kindness, tension moves on (and if it doesn’t you’ll plan to give it more care). Being in the ‘now’[ii] is part of compassion, and it fosters acceptance and trust. You may notice how perfectly fine things are in the now. You may even relish, at times, how much you’re enjoying yourself.
[Jumping to another section of the chapter…]
Post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic growth?
It is not uncommon for parents of kids with an eating-disorder to suffer from some kind of backlash, possibly as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder, after their child’s condition improves. It’s by no means a general rule, but it happens. I was lucky: I did a lot of falling apart while my daughter was ill, and then felt increasingly well. But some parents end up more traumatised than their kids, something that has been observed in families where a child has recovered from cancer.
“After my husband and I finally got our daughter to a safe stage in recovery, our bodies decided to sort of collapse on us. I kept catching bugs/viruses that went on for ages. I think our bodies know when the ED emergency is over, and then they crash! Anyway, now I'm well again.”
It can be scary for us parents to notice how anxious or depressed we feel and to think that this may stay with us for ever.
“It does get better, in fact it was surprising to me that I had to think hard to remember some of the things that happened, although at the time it felt like we would never get through them or forget them.”
It may help you to know that PTSD is by no means inevitable and is not linked to the severity of the trauma. Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, discusses survivors of traumas, in particular war veterans. In spite of what the media would have us believe, he points out that PTSD is relatively uncommon. Most people return to their previous level of functioning after a brief period of depression and anxiety.
More excitingly, there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth. Seligman notes that after events producing intense depression and anxiety, a substantial number of people become not only resilient, but better than ever. Seligman gave questionnaires to 1,700 people who had suffered torture, grave illness, death of a child, rape, imprisonment and other awful events. These people had more strengths and greater wellbeing than people who had not experienced major stressors.
I can relate to that. I had months of feeling like I was cracking up while my daughter was in hospital. I carried dark glasses everywhere because I never knew when I might burst into tears. I frequently fantasised about smashing the car into a wall and feared that one day I might do so involuntarily. But I also knew that I had good reason to be distressed.
In this chapter:
- Acceptance: work with reality, not against it
- Trust that you have resources
- The body drives the mind: relaxed and alert
- Imagery to help you get grounded and peaceful
- Good-enough zen
- Coping in the moment
- Being in the moment
- Turn thoughts around: ‘is it true?’
- What to do with fear
- Post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic growth?
- Mistakes, blame and self-acceptance
- Refuel: attend to life-giving needs
- Sadness, mourning and … joy
- Writing a diary: self-help or rumination?
- An attitude of gratitude
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