Exploring the Impact of Grief and Loss on Eating Disorder Recovery

While working toward eating disorder recovery, experiencing loss and grief can bring up immense challenges that require help from eating disorder treatment centers. The loss of a friend, family member or other loved one often feels quite traumatic and jarring, even when it is somewhat expected. Other types of losses can also cause grief, including job termination, terminal illness diagnoses and breakups.

Waves of strong emotions tend to arise in the hours and days after experiencing the loss. Without an ability to effectively manage these emotions, individuals in binge eating disorder treatment may revert to using disordered thoughts and behaviors to cope.

When this occurs, people may begin to backslide in their recovery and start to experience an increase in eating disorder symptoms, including a return of disordered eating attitudes. They may feel preoccupied with limiting food intake and maximizing exercise, for example, as a way to control their emotions – and their lives as an extension.

Grief can make daily life feel chaotic and unpredictable, making attempts to regulate strong emotions more difficult than ever. This can derail individuals as they work on becoming and remaining recovered with help from eating disorder counseling.

The Seven Main Stages of Grief People Move Between After Loss

When people experience grief, they tend to switch through seven key stages at random. As they move through each stage of grief, they face different challenges that require the strategic use of healthy coping techniques to overcome. Developing an understanding of these stages and their impact on eating disorders can help patients as they work on becoming and remaining recovered.

  • Shock

    Upon hearing the news of their loss, most people experience feelings of shock. This can cause paralysis that leaves them unable to take any action in managing their emotions or handling any affairs in need of attention. Shock almost always occurs upon first hearing the bad news, but can reappear at various times as people move between all the stages of grief.

  • Denial

    Denial occurs as people have trouble processing the loss and accepting it as their permanent reality. They try to cling to the denial as a way to avoid this realization and move on with life as it was before. This stage helps protect people from the crushing reality through avoidance. While in denial, people cannot attempt to move forward in healing or effectively regulating their emotions.

  • Anger

    Strong, often overwhelming, emotions build up while processing the loss through every stage. The anger stage arrives as a way to release those powerful emotions that continually build up inside. The pent-up emotions may come through as persistent irritability and angry outbursts. These reactions often arise in response to events separate from the loss. Even minor frustrations can trigger anger when people are working through this stage of grief.

  • Bargaining

    The bargaining stage often begins as people acknowledge their loss and find ways to make it all go away. They might make promises to a higher power in an effort to reverse the loss. As all these attempts do not serve to eliminate their loss or pain, moving through this stage can feel exhausting. Feelings of guilt, worry and frustration abound as people seek out why this all occurred and ways to go back to before it happened.

  • Depression

    Depression occurs as all the sadness of the situation lands squarely on grief-stricken shoulders. They may not have any spark for life or care about what is going on around them. This stage leaves people reeling as sadness and a lack of motivation envelops their everyday lives. They may feel unable to cope with this depression, leading to a reliance on disordered behaviors as coping mechanisms.

  • Testing

    Testing takes the bargaining stage and goes one step further in finding ways to cope with their loss. They may look for realistic ways to handle the way they feel and move through the stages of grief. During this stage, it is of vital importance that people with eating disorders test the use of their healthy coping skills rather than disordered behaviors. They must also resist the return of disordered thought patterns that can lead to poor coping abilities.

  • Acceptance 

    With the realization that the loss is real and permanent, people move into the acceptance stage. They start using the coping skills found in the testing stage to begin rebuilding their lives anew. Many people start to feel peace with acceptance, though it is not always lasting. Reaching acceptance tends to take a long time in the initial stages of grief. And many people do not remain in acceptance for long upon landing there. They may cycle back through the other stages as they attempt to make sense of it all and protect themselves from the trauma.

By using these seven stages of grief as a guide, eating disorder treatment center professionals can support people in becoming and remaining recovered after experiencing loss.

Impact of Grief and Loss on Eating Disorder Recovery

While in binge eating disorder recovery, people tend to experience immense stress as they move through each stage of grief. They may struggle with emotional dysregulation and all that comes with it, including experiencing overwhelming emotional outbursts at the slightest stressors.

As they look for ways to cope, they may turn back to disordered behaviors, such as food restriction and excessive exercise, to manage their emotions. This tends to backfire as these disordered behaviors create a dysfunctional cycle that results in the return of eating disorder symptoms and side effects.

As a result of the emotional dysregulation and return of disordered behaviors, many people may withdraw from their social circles. The lack of social support greatly reduces their ability to cope with all the strong emotions they feel in a way that benefits their overall wellbeing.

Although instantly gratifying, disordered thoughts and behaviors only serve to harm the individual as they become ingrained. Selecting and using adaptive coping skills is key in limiting the influence of grief and loss on eating disorder recovery.

Symptoms of Grief Individuals with Eating Disorders May Experience

Even with the use of healthy coping skills, grief can cause people to experience a number of physical symptoms that make this process all the more difficult to handle. The physical symptoms often arise from experiencing high-stress levels and extreme mental anguish in the days, weeks and months following the loss.

Immediately upon hearing news of the loss and while moving through each stage of grief, it is normal to experience:

  • Appetite changes

  • Difficulties sleeping

  • Restlessness

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fatigue

  • Stomach pain

  • Digestion issues

  • Headaches

These physical manifestations of grief will naturally grow worse and get better as people work through the loss and move through the stages. It is normal for each stage of grief to come with different physical symptoms. These symptoms often respond to healthy coping skills that help reduce stress, regulate emotions and distract from the pain.

How Eating Disorder Treatment Centers Provide Support After Loss

To help people become and remain recovered through periods of intense grief, binge eating disorder therapy introduces and reinforces coping skills that can help. The therapists assist their patients in digging through their toolboxes of skills in search of coping methods that help to ease the pain of their loss.

Patients often need to practice using the skills to face their grief to determine which ones truly help or do not. As they weed through their skills, they can find ways to end their cycle through the stages of grief to reach a state of acceptance. Unfortunately, in many cases, patients do not yet have the coping skills they need to handle grief without reverting to disordered thought patterns and behaviors for comfort.

To overcome this challenge, the binge eating disorder therapy sessions introduce new coping skills that can potentially work to ease the pain. Not every coping strategy works for every person, so it is important patients try each one to see how it helps to control their emotions.

The coping skills do not relieve all of the pain caused by grief either. They simply make it easier to cope when the strong waves of emotion that may arise in response to grief triggers. After losing a loved one, these triggers may range from hearing a beloved song to smelling their perfume in the air. Triggers are impossible to avoid, so coping skills are a must to help people manage their emotions as they arise.

Once patients at binge eating disorder treatment centers build their toolbox of effective coping skills, they practice effectively using them in real-life situations through exposure exercises. These practice sessions help build patients’ confidence levels in effectively managing their thought patterns and behaviors in the face of grief.

Healthy Coping Skills Patients Can Learn to Use for Grief and Loss

Through trial and error, and regular practice sessions, patients can build a toolbox filled with effective coping skills while in eating disorder counseling. The coping skills vary considerably to ensure the skills help individuals in eating disorder recovery through every stage of grief. It is important to have a wide range of skills to choose from to suit every situation and level of distress. Here are a few of the different types of skills patients may learn while at eating disorder treatment centers.


While working on becoming and remaining recovered, people in binge eating disorder treatment learn how to practice mindfulness. This important coping skill allows people to reflect on their state of wellbeing and determine the root cause of their distress. They can focus their attention on their emotions and underlying causes to start to unravel the reasons for their strong emotions. Through this process, it is even possible to determine where people are in the grief cycle and adjust their coping strategies for the most support through each stage.


When patients at eating disorder treatment centers learn how to meditate, they are given a tool that helps them relieve stress and cope with strong emotions. This practice helps individuals acknowledge and accept distressing thoughts, which helps them dissipate faster. As individuals clear their mind and address the thoughts that naturally arise, they have an easier time remaining mindful and adjusting their coping strategies.

Creative Outlets

Through creative outlets, people working on eating disorder recovery can cope with difficult emotions as they arise. These outlets may include:

  • Painting

  • Drawing

  • Sculpting

  • Digital arts

  • Photography

  • Ceramics

  • Videography

  • Blogging

  • Cooking

  • Playing music

  • Soapmaking

  • Knitting

  • Dancing

Utilizing these activities as emotions start to build can redirect the attention of individuals trying to experience their grief. This assists in soothing their mind and body, reducing their distress as they cope with the loss.

When to Reach Out for Help After Experiencing Loss of a Loved One

Upon receiving news of a major loss, it is important for people in binge eating disorder recovery to immediately begin to plan their coping strategy. By taking action the moment the news comes in, these individuals can create the safety net they need to avoid eating disorder behaviors and negative thought patterns.

Individuals in eating disorder treatment can alert their care team to their loss and receive help in developing a plan for coping. Those who are fully recovered can reach out to their care team to inquire about alumnae support resources that can help. Care professionals at eating disorder treatment centers are always available to assist everyone in need of extra support as they deal with grief and loss that occurs throughout life.