Anorexia (or anorexia nervosa) is a serious mental health condition; it’s an eating disorder where people keep their body weight low by dieting, vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising. People with anorexia have a distorted image of themselves; they think they are fat, and no matter how much this is challenged by the people around them, this belief is the only thing that stays true for them. They will go to great lengths to convince family members and friends that they have ‘normal’ eating habits.
Anorexia often develops out of anxiety associated with body shape and weight; people with anorexia are convinced that losing those extra few pounds, or reaching a certain dress size will make all the difference between feeling self-conscious and fat and feeling good about themselves. Of course, those elusive few pounds never really get lost and when the desired dress size is achieved, the new goal is a size smaller, as it’s the next ‘logical’ step to self-improvement. Often people with anorexia have low self-confidence and poor self-esteem. They see their weight loss as a positive achievement that can help increase their confidence and how people see them; more often than not, it also contributes to a feeling of gaining control over their body shape and weight.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia
People with anorexia often hide their behaviour from family and friends by lying about what they’ve eaten or pretending to have eaten earlier; this makes it harder to spot the signs of an eating disorder. Someone who might be suffering from anorexia will be:
- Missing meals, eating very little, or avoiding eating any fatty foods.
- Obsessively counting calories in food.
- Leaving the table immediately after eating so they can vomit.
- Taking appetite suppressants such as slimming or diet pills; laxatives, or diuretics (a type of medication that helps remove fluid from the body).
- Repeatedly weighing themselves or checking their body in the mirror.
- Underestimating the seriousness of the problem even after diagnosis.
- Giving excuses about why they are not eating, pretend they have eaten earlier, or what they have eaten.
- Not truthful about how much weight they have lost.
- Finding it difficult to think about anything other than food
- Dieting, very strictly.
- Avoiding eating with other people.
- Hiding food.
- Cutting food into tiny pieces – to make it less obvious they have eaten little and to make food easier to swallow
- Excessively exercising
- Vomiting or misusing laxatives (purging)
- Withdrawing from friends and family – isolating themselves.
- Smoking or chewing gum more to keep their weight down.
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide their body.
- Water loading before being weighed – so the scales will show a heavier weight than they actually are.
- Avoiding mealtimes, especially at school.
- Losing interest in sex.
- Setting high standards and being a perfectionist.
- Finding it difficult to concentrate.
Anorexia can cause severe malnutrition caused by the effect of starvation on the body; other physical signs of anorexia include:
- Severe weight loss.
- In girls and women, periods stop or are irregular (amenorrhea).
- Difficulty sleeping and tiredness.
- Feeling dizzy.
- Stomach pains.
- Constipation and bloating.
- Feeling cold or have a low body temperature.
- Growth of downy (soft and fine) hair all over your body (called Lanugo).
- Hair falling out.
- Getting irritable and moody.
- Loss of muscle strength.
- Effects on endocrine system (The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things).
- Swelling in their feet, hands or face (known as oedema).
- Low blood pressure
These are very long and worrying lists of the effects this eating disorder can have on an individual; not including the fact that anorexia (as with other eating disorder) can be associated with depression, alcohol misuse and self-harm.
Anorexia can have a serious effect on people’s relationships, causing irreparable damage sometimes. The gravity of the physical and emotional consequences of the condition is often not acknowledged or recognised and people with anorexia often do not seek help; many don’t see it as a disorder, and those that do, believe they can manage it without external help.
Girls and women are 10 times more likely than boys and men to suffer from anorexia However, eating disorders do seem to be getting more common in boys and men – they are more likely to develop their disorder in association with over-exercise and to want to be of a muscular build rather than a slim one. Anorexia in children and young people is similar to that in adults in terms of its psychological characteristics.
Causes of anorexia
Pinpointing the exact cause of anorexia can be achieved through therapy, however there are some ‘general’ psychological factors that can contribute to the development of the eating disorder. Many people who suffer from eating disorders:
- Suffer from depressive and anxious thoughts.
- Find it difficult to handle stress.
- Worry excessively about how they are perceived.
- Are scared of change and worry about the future.
- Perfectionists – setting strict, demanding goals or standards.
- Usually emotionally restrained.
There are other environmental factors that can also play a part in contributing to the development of anorexia:
- Puberty is an important factor contributing to anorexia. The combination of hormonal changes and feelings of stress, anxiety and low self-esteem during puberty can trigger an eating disorder.
- Western culture and society also plays a part. Girls – and, to a lesser extent, boys – are exposed to a wide range of media messages that constantly reinforce the idea that being thin is beautiful.
- Magazines and newspapers also focus on celebrities’ minor physical imperfections, such as gaining a few pounds or having cellulite.
- Pressures at school, such as exams or bullying, particularly teasing about body weight or shape.
- Occupations or hobbies where being thin is seen as the ideal, such as dancing or athletics.
- A stressful life event, such as losing a job, the breakdown of a relationship, or bereavement
- Difficult family relationships, or emotional abuse at home
- Physical or sexual abuse
Anorexia can often start as a form of dieting that gradually gets out of control.
If you want to talk to someone regarding the issues raised in this blog, please contact us. We are offering a free two week trial for online counselling.