How Eating Disorders Can Affect the Social Lives of Young Adults

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Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that have a big effect on young people’s lives. Eating disorders don’t only impact mental and physical health, but also relationships, friendships, educational achievement, and overall quality of life.

Interpersonal relationships and eating disorders are closely linked. Friendship difficulties may be a risk factor for developing eating disorders, while strong interpersonal bonds and support systems often play a big role in recovery. Eating disorders can also have a significant impact on young people’s social lives, their friendships, and sense of belonging.

Understanding how eating disorders affect the social lives of young adults is really important, especially when interpersonal connection can hold a key to recovery. This awareness can help professionals and families support young adults in maintaining friendships or reconnecting with others during treatment, strengthening their recovery journey.

This blog outlines some of the main ways that eating disorders can impact the social lives of young adults. It also touches on how treatment approaches can help young people keep social connections and support throughout the recovery process.

Group Belonging and Loss of Friendships

Many young adults with eating disorders find that their illness affects their ability to maintain friendships with others and stay part of a social group. Research shows that people with eating disorders report having smaller social networks than those without EDs. Adults with eating disorders are often shy and socially withdrawn, participating in fewer social activities than others.

Eating disorders have a big effect on young adults’ physical health and energy levels. Young adults with eating disorders may feel too tired and fatigued to socialise and spend more time at home by themselves. With their eating disorder taking up too much of their energy and strength, they may try to handle the illness by themselves.

Many young people also feel ashamed of their eating disorder and want to hide it from others. They may also be afraid that other people knowing about their illness will make it more difficult for them to control what they eat.

These feelings can lead young people to consciously avoid social situations that might involve food, such as coffee or dinners with friends. The idea of turning down food or not eating when others are can cause anxiety or distress, as can the experience of eating with other people. Consequently, young adults may choose to spend the time alone instead.

Missing Out and Exclusion

When young adults start spending less time with their friends, because of tiredness, avoidance of food, or other reasons, they may experience feelings of missing out or exclusion. It can feel like life is going on without them and they’re no longer part of a friendship group or social network. 

These feelings can cause young adults to create even more distance between themselves and others as they lose a sense of belonging. Friendship groups may also leave them out of social activities, leading to a sense of rejection and isolation.

With time, young adults may start to feel like they no longer share the same interests as friends or have meaningful social opportunities. This can make it more difficult to reconnect with others, even after recovery.

Coping with Comments from Friends and Peers

Many young people experience a lot of anxiety about the comments they will receive from friends and others around them. They may worry that someone will make a comment about their weight or appearance or judge them because of their illness – even if they’ve known someone for a long time.

People with eating disorders often place a lot of their self-value on their appearance, including body shape and weight. Disordered eating is linked to self-objectification when young people value themselves according to their physical attributes rather than other parts of their identity. This means that young adults with eating disorders may be especially sensitive to comments, criticism, or judgement about their appearance.

Young adults with eating disorders may also feel anxious about more general social skills, such as the things they say or how they act. They may overthink social situations and be afraid they have said or done something wrong. 

They may also be concerned about what others will say about them once they have left a social setting. This fear of judgment can sometimes cause young adults to avoid saying anything or socialising at all.

Taking Time Out for Treatment

Inpatient treatment (including hospitalisation) can have a positive effect on young adult’s social lives. Young adults may be able to meet other people with eating disorders who understand their experience and create what feels like a safer and more comfortable environment. Inpatient treatment settings often involve collective living with others, providing opportunities to quickly form close friendships.

Some young people in inpatient care also find that they develop stronger bonds with friends who continue to visit and support them during their stay. This can help build confidence and trust while overcoming fears of judgement.

However, many young people find that their previous friendships become hard to maintain when they spend time in inpatient treatment. While they may form new friendships during their stay in a centre, it can be hard to reconnect with others when they leave. 

Young people may also miss out on opportunities to practice and implement social skills from inpatient settings, decreasing their confidence to handle social situations in everyday life. 

Supporting Young People in Staying Connected to Others

While eating disorders can have a big impact on the social lives of young adults, there are some steps to take that may help young people maintain friendships with others. 

Maintaining Contact with Friends

In an inpatient treatment setting, helping young people to keep in contact with friends and friendship groups can help them to keep their social networks. Offering supported, step-by-step reintegration into everyday environments after a program can also help ease the transition. Moreover, inpatient programs may offer opportunities to practice and develop social skills in everyday environments, not only within a treatment setting.

Some young people may find that friendship maps can help them to hold friends in mind and remember to make contact.

Social Skills Interventions

Treatment programs may offer social skills interventions that focus on problem-solving and interpersonal skills, helping young people feel more comfortable in social situations and understand how to fit into a group setting. 

Other interventions can improve young people’s self-esteem and reduce their social anxiety or fear of being judged. They can also help young people to appreciate and value different parts of their identity, rather than focusing on their appearance or body shape. 

These interventions might include cognitive-behavioural therapy, dialectical-behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy, or other approaches.

Other Forms of Communication

Physical recovery plays an important role in enabling young people to rebuild their social lives, bringing with it the energy they require to meet with friends and engage in activities. In the meantime, online or over-phone communication may help young adults stay in touch with friends and enjoy meaningful connections, although it’s never a long-term substitute for in-person interactions.

The Wave Clinic: Eating Disorder Specialists that Make a Difference

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We take a whole-person approach to recovery, combining clinical care with education, enriching experiences, and community projects. We focus on building self-confidence, developing interpersonal skills, and laying the foundations for a stable and fulfilling future.

The Wave is a Global Centre of Excellence for the treatment of eating disorders. Our team draws on unequalled expertise, specialising in children and adolescent mental health. We treat the underlying causes of eating disorders, sensitively addressing experiences of trauma that may continue to shape a young person’s feelings and behaviours today.

If you’re interested in our programs, get in touch today to find out more.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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