Support from family and friends can make all the difference for someone experiencing an eating disorder. However, caring for a loved one with an eating disorder isn’t easy – it can be a very stressful and overwhelming experience, being both physically and emotionally draining and isolating. It is vital to have a toolkit of strategies when carers support their loved ones with an eating disorder during times of distress. In this article, Eating Disorders Victoria will be highlighting using a range of sensory-based approaches as a strategy carers can use to support their loved ones when dealing with perceivably difficult and stressful situations during their eating disorder journey.
How can sensory approaches help my loved one with an eating disorder?
What are sensory approaches?
Sensory approaches can be described as a range of therapeutic strategies that involve the senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch & movement).
Evidence has shown that sensory approaches can provide many benefits to an individual with mental health issues, including eating disorders, by providing a sense of comfort and relief from distress. Learning sensory-based approaches supports a person’s ability to self regulate and organize emotions in more adaptive and effective ways.
So how does this all work?
We respond to our external environment based on sensations. Sensations help us in determining whether our environment is safe or risky. For us to respond appropriately to environmental demands, we need to be able to organize our sensory perceptions to make sense of it. Sometimes, individuals can experience a mismatch with their nervous system in evaluating the risk of an environment. This mismatch can cause them to assess an environment as being dangerous, even when it abjectly is safe.
For example, someone in recovery from anorexia may have a strong, fear based reaction to having to finish their plate of dinner.
Whilst finishing a meal is usually perceived as a safe environment, for someone with an eating disorder, this can send their nervous system into panic. This results in them having fight, flight or freeze behaviours where they may shut down or become unresponsive (Porges, 2009).
How sensory approaches can help
When a person experiencing an eating disorder approaches a distressing situation, sensory inputs have been shown to help ground them and therefore prevent or lessen the fight, flight or freeze response. When a person is centred and alert, they are able to better engage in social and therapeutic activities that are part of their recovery.
As a carer of someone experiencing an eating disorder, it is beneficial to develop a stress management plan that incorporates sensory preferences. Try to identify trigger points that can cause distress to the individual so you can introduce and implement the sensory activity before he/she becomes distressed.
For example, if you are accompanying your loved one on a shopping trip and they are stressed about trying on clothes, having a touch-based sensory approach such as a stress ball or fidget spinner on hand can help keep your loved one calm.
These activities will help carers support their loved ones with an eating disorder to achieve a calm and alert state during their distressing situation. This improves their overall emotional well-being and their ability to engage with social engagement behaviours meaning they won’t shut down, allowing for them to critically assess the environment. For more information on sensory strategies for mental health challenges, you can follow Karen Moore’s Sensory Connection Program.
What sensory approach will work for my loved one?
Given the intimate and individual nature of sensations, every individual is unique in their own specific sensory needs and stress responses. Thus, every individual would have their own specific sensory approach that they best respond to. Examples of this can be:
- Sight – coloured lights and scenic nature pictures
- Sound – relaxing music/sounds
- Taste – sweet, sour or salty food, flavoured tea, hard candies and gum
- Smell – aromatherapy, scented hand creams
- Touch – self-massagers, bean bags, stress balls, fidget widgets and textured items or fabrics
- Movement – rocking chairs and movement activities
Weighted items such as weighted blankets, toys, vests and lap bags provide several sensory inputs at once (e.g., deep pressure, touch and sight).
Every individual’s sensory stimulation and responses are unique so it is strongly encouraged to experiment using various items targeting different senses to determine what the individual finds effective for calming and alerting themselves during their perceived distressing situation.
It is important to note that Sensory Approaches is not recommended as a sole eating disorder treatment but can be used in conjunction with eating disorder treatment to improve the development of the individual experiencing an eating disorder. For more carers support in your eating disorder journey, you can call The EDV Hub, attend our Recovery Support Groups or Professional Training or book an appointment with one of our qualified Eating Disorder Psychologists.
We would like to thank Alex Hillman for presenting the Eating Disorders Victoria ‘Sense-ability’: Sensory Approaches & Eating Disorders workshop and allowing us to use and reference her presentation material in writing this article. Alex Hillman is an Occupational Therapist working as a senior clinician and Eating Disorders Coordinator in a public mental health adult community setting in Melbourne. Alex also works as a lecturer in Occupational Therapy at Deakin University.