Eating disorders are a complex and varied group of eating behaviors affecting thousands of lives. There is no single cause for these disorders, which include anorexia nervosa and bulimia. However, society’s emphasis on physical appearance and leanness as a means of achieving success and beauty often play a role in their development. As people become more aware of their weight and appearance many choose to diet in an attempt to conform to society’s standards. Many eating disorders begin as diets. The vast majority (95%) of those with eating disorders are female. Perhaps because women, more so than men, are socialized to link their self-esteem to body image (the way an individual feels about his/her appearance).
Disordered eating typically begins in adolescence or early adult life. The academic and social stress of college life may trigger the onset of an eating disorder in a vulnerable individual or may worsen an already existing disorder. Many college women do not meet all the criteria for an eating disorder but still have serious eating problems.
The following psychological characteristics describe individuals who are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder:
- Intelligent, but driven to succeed by the fear of failure
- Low sense of self-worth
- Difficulty in expressing both positive and negative emotions
- “People pleasers” (feel responsible for making others feel good, especially parents)
- Things are seen as absolutes (things are either black or white, good or bad)
- Depressed and anxious
What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder, which involves extreme weight loss due to continuous self-imposed dieting, starvation, and/or excessive exercise. Anorectics often feel they lack control over their lives. Because no one can tell them what or how much to eat, eating becomes an issue of control. Psychologically, anorectics are preoccupied with food; but instead of eating they spend time shopping for food, planning and preparing meals, and watching others eat.
Anorectics have an irrational fear of being fat, and continue to view themselves as overweight in spite of being noticeably underweight - often emaciated. Anorexia nervosa can and does cause several health problems. Due to their dangerously low amounts of body fat and nutritional deficiencies, anorectics may demonstrate the following symptoms: cessation of menstruation, insomnia, loss of bone density, mood changes, increased sensitivity to cold and heat, fatigue, increased susceptibility to disease, “peach fuzz” hair growth on face and body, thinning hair, dry and brittle nails, and heart complications.
What is Bulimia?
Bulimia is an eating disorder, which involves occasional to frequent binge eating, usually followed by purging. Common purging methods are vomiting, use of laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise. When on a binge the bulimic will uncontrollably eat large quantities of food in a relatively short period of time. Because of an intense fear of becoming fat the bulimic will attempt to rid his/her body of the food by purging. This binge-purge cycle can and does become habit forming.
Bulimia can also lead to health problems. Binging and purging can cause the following symptoms: dental and gum disease, digestive problems, irregular or cessation of menses, difficult weight control, injury to the esophagus, lung, stomach and or intestines, electrolyte abnormalities, kidney and heart complications, injury to the skin, dehydration, and mood changes.
Individuals may develop eating disorders as a way of dealing with the conflicts, pressures, and stresses of their lives. Eating disorders are often a vehicle to express control when the rest of your life seems out of control. If you have concerns about your eating or exercise habits, consult with a mental health or medical provider as soon as possible.
For a Friend
For many, being a friend or relative of a person with an eating disorder is a frustrating experience. It is difficult to understand why bright and talented people punish themselves in such a severe manner. An eating disorder is not a disorder of choice, but rather a genetic predisposition that can be triggered by any number of life changing events, such as the transition to college.
As the deadliest mental illness, eating disorders extend far beyond a simple issue with food. Therefore, early intervention is critical. The support of family and friends during the initial diagnosis and struggle can be instrumental in helping someone seek treatment and achieve a sustained recovery from an eating disorder
If you do elect to confront your friend, a straightforward approach is best. Emphasize the fact that you care about what happens to them. Objectively state their behaviors that have given you cause for concern. Suggest where they can go to get the help they need. You may offer to go with them for their first visit. When initially confronted, most people have a defensive reaction. If this occurs, you should “leave the door open” suggesting that they can discuss this with you at any time.
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Jan Taylor Schultz, LCSW 812-334-0001 or http://www.jantaylorschultz.com