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Our latest Guest Blogger, Ileana, shares a recap of key takeaways from our recent webinar on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships in Eating Disorder Recovery. If you missed the webinar, you can watch a recording, here.

The latest in Orri’s series of Webinars was a fantastic discussion on the topic of sex, intimacy, and relationships in eating disorder recovery. Kerrie, Maxine, Pippa, and Romy came together to share how these things- an integral part to all of our lives- can be impacted by an eating disorder, and what this might mean when a person starts their journey of recovery.

The following blog post is a rough summary/elaboration of the points which stood out most to me in the webinar.

Sex and intimacy are things which are rarely discussed so publicly from the providers of treatment for mental health difficulties, and yet, an eating disorder will have a huge impact on these things.

When we are talking about relationships, we do not always mean the erotic, or romantic; one might say the most intimate relationship we can nurture is that with ourselves. Relationships of all sorts are impacted by the presence of an eating disorder, which is why it is so important, and encouraging to see Orri sharing this discussion with such generosity and openness!

Sex, intimacy and relationships are a fundamental part of our life experience, bringing love, comfort, connectedness, pleasure, a sense of anchoring or security in trying times. Navigating or even allowing oneself to lean in to these feelings can be difficult for someone with an ED, especially when the illness has developed in response to a traumatic experience relating to sex or relationships.

Though, at it’s core, intimacy can be described as the most authentic conversation we can have with ourselves, and something which must be explored through the recovery process.

The negotiation of needs, and the experience of pleasure or loss of control which may occur in intimate moments, can feel very difficult or dangerous for someone experiencing an eating disorder.

An eating disorder can lead to a sense of a third presence in a relationship, leading to a sense of physical and emotional distance for both the sufferer and the other person. One party may begin to feel isolated or rejected- this can be said for relationships of all levels.

Intimacy can be lost in the instant that a moment of reaching out or trying to connect goes unnoticed or unmet by the other person; this can lead to feelings of insecurity, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and moving us into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Eating disorders thrive in isolation, and so it is no wonder that we have seen an increase in people reaching out for support throughout the pandemic.

Kerrie discussed the negotiation of needs people are being forced to consider now that we know things in the UK will open up from the 19th July:

“If we’ve learnt anything about the last 18 months, it’s our need for connectedness.”

The loss of physical touch is something which has been felt by many during COVID-19. But intimacy is of course not solely about the physical, it is also about listening and choosing to connect, to share, and to engage; recovery starts to happen when a person is ready to reach out again and to reconnect.

Returning to the idea of isolation, and its link with intimacy and the experience of an eating disorder, Pippa says that:

“Underneath isolation is, essentially, the fear of not surviving […] we know that touch is a way in which our nervous system is activated and soothed.”.

An eating disorder can affect the way a person reacts to sex, intimacy, and to the relationships in their lives; being honest about the impact the eating disorder has had on these things- and vice versa- is so important.

We may experience a shift in roles within relationships, from equals, to one person becoming a carer and the other feeling dependent on their partner in some ways; being able to recognise and honestly discuss our needs may help to shift the dynamic back to where two people want it to be- whether this is in a platonic relationship or a romantic relationship where the ED has temporarily desexualised the dynamic between a couple.

Pleasure and enjoyment of any kind is something that some people with eating disorders find extremely difficult to tolerate, and something like sex may well feel very difficult to them when they experience it at a time where they are in a more peaceful place with their bodies, as opposed to before they started recovery.

An eating disorder can serve to disconnect or suppress feelings of enjoyment, which may be coupled with letting go or feeling slightly more out of control than usual– something which, in an environment where we feel safe and our needs are met, is good and healthy to be able to tolerate.

We can restart that process of connectedness- with ourself, and others- by doing so in steps that feel safe and manageable; this might include building moments of connection with others, enjoying the sensation of bubbles on your skin when you take a bath, enjoying a nourishing meal; gradually new things can be integrated, and a person can work towards doing these things with another person who they feel safe with.

Ileana Daniel

Ileana is a Psychology Master’s student at the University of Bristol; from September she will be working to support adolescents with eating disorders within an inpatient setting. She is passionate about improving student knowledge in this area, working as co-President of a society called Beat This Together whilst at university, which campaigns and educates on the subject. She has worked collaboratively to write learning materials on eating disorders to be included within the medical curriculum at Bristol from September 2021 and was involved in passing a motion through the Student Council which aims to improve the use of weight-inclusive language in sports at the university, as well as providing training on eating disorders to staff. She is pursuing a route into clinical psychology where she hopes to one day specialise in supporting people in their recovery from eating disorders.

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