What is anorexia?
It’s a serious eating disorder during which a person (usually a teenage girl) becomes so obsessed with her weight and shape that she starves herself down to nothing.
Specifically, Anorexia is characterized by a loss of 15-25 per cent of usual body weight, an unnatural fear of becoming fat, a distorted perception of body image and an absence of a menstrual cycle. This extreme weight loss leads directly to malnutrition and failing health.
Like bulimia, binge-eating and other eating disorders, anorexia is fundamentally a psychological condition. Weight loss is a symptom not the cause.
The anorexia sufferer
No matter how thin she gets, the anorexic sufferer (anorectic) continues to believe that she’s too fat. In fact, her whole attitude becomes a process of denial. She denies herself food, she denies she has a problem, she denies she’s emaciated and, above all, she denies help.
Anorexia is not about being slim
It’s far more complex than that. It’s mainly about gaining control. Sufferers feel they lack control over their lives and seek to reassert it by focusing on their weight. It may seem crazy to outsiders, but to the anorexic it makes perfect sense. To her, every pound lost is a victory in her battle for control and every pound regained is a defeat.
The causes of anorexia
The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is unknown. It Anorexia can also be the delayed result of unresolved conflicts or painful experiences from childhood.
Who is likely to develop anorexia?
Anyone. However, the majority of people with anorexia are white girls from middle/upper income families, aged 12 to 18 years. Typically, they are intelligent, sensitive, well-behaved individuals but with a low self esteem. What causes them to develop anorexia? No one knows for sure. It may be a traumatic event, a failed relationship, or a build-up of things. Perhaps they are not doing well at school. Or maybe they did well at school but are now very unsure about their career or college situation.
Anorectics yearn for control
Responding to perceived stress, most anorectics start dieting to lose a few pounds. They begin to focus on their body as if to say . I might not be able to control other things in my life, but I can control my weight. Doing this makes them feel in charge. They begin to feel in control again.
Unfortunately, the dieting usually gets out of control and a few pounds leads to 20, 30, 40 pounds or more. When friends and family express concern about the anorectic’s reduced weight and shape, their concern is viewed by the anorectic as a threat to her weight control. Despite being extremely thin and underweight, she maintains a self-perception of being fat. This leads her to try to lose even more weight in an effort to retain control.
Purging, use of laxatives
As an anorectic’s weight drops to below 100 pounds, the body slows down. Breathing, pulse and blood pressure rates drop, and thyroid function slows, causing weight loss to slow down or stop, even though very little food is being consumed. This frustrates the anorectic who quickly learns other behaviors to rid themselves of weight, like: extreme exercise routines; vomiting; laxatives abuse and other behaviors to help purge their system of calories.
Medical problems associated with anorexia
In patients with anorexia, starvation can damage vital organs such as the brain and heart. Menstrual periods stop (a condition called amenorrhea), skin, nails and hair become dry and the skin becomes covered with soft hair as a natural defense mechanism against extreme weight loss. Excessive thirst and urination are also common. Dehydration contributes to constipation, and reduced body fat leads to lowered body temperature and the inability to withstand cold. The anorectic becomes vulnerable to illness. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 1 in 10 cases of anorexia ends in death from starvation, suicide or medical complications like heart attacks or kidney failure.
Scientists have found that many patients with anorexia also suffer from other psychiatric conditions. Most anorectics suffer from clinical depression, while others suffer from anxiety or personality disorders, and in consequence may have suicidal tendencies. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition typified by compulsive, repetitive behavior, can also accompany anorexia.
Warning signs of anorexia
If you think that your loved one might be in danger from anorexia, here are some warning signs to watch out for.
- Is she losing a lot of weight? Has she fallen 7 pounds below the normal weight range for someone of her height?
- Is she becoming an obsessive calorie-counter? Does she eat only very low-calorie foods, like salad and fruit?
- Is she becoming secretive or evasive about her eating habits? Does she eat out of sight or in private?
- Has she started to become obsessive about exercise, or any other daily routine (e.g. homework)?
- Is she suffering unusually from infections, constipation, dizzy spells, insomnia, or does she complain of the cold?
If she has started to develop these behavior patterns, you should definitely speak to your doctor and the sooner, the better. However, don’t expect your loved one to thank you for intervening. Most anorectics deny they have any sort of problem, let alone anorexia.
When speaking to a loved one whom you think is becoming anorexic, don’t tell them they’re looking thin..
Instead, tell them they look unhealthy and offer to go with them to see their doctor.
What is the treatment for anorexia
Anorexia is a mental problem that causes irrational / unnatural eating patterns. Treatment for this eating disorder should include both a mental health professional as well as a primary health care physician.
Clinical treatment may include ongoing medical care, regular therapy, nutritional counseling, and possibly medication. Eating disorders can be treated with anti-depressants, however, this is less effective for anorexia nervosa.
Co-occurring psychological treatment is also essential to help identify the important issues, and replace the anorectic’s destructive thoughts and behaviors with more positive ones. Support groups are also invaluable in treating anorexia. Patients may meet weekly to discuss their fears and help each other recover. Most cases of anorexia can be treated successfully, but not instantly. For many patients, treatments may need to be long-term.
How family and friends can help
The most important thing that family/ friends can offer a person with anorexia is unconditional love.
To put it another way, they should love the individual without supporting their actions.
But under no circumstances try to ‘treat’ the anorexia sufferer yourself. It is essential to seek professional medical help at the earliest possible opportunity.
Having spoken at length with several anorexia patients, the best advice I can offer in dealing with an individual anorectic is as follows: (1) Don’t lecture her, it makes things worse! Instead, listen to her. (2) Try to be patient! Remember, she doesn’t see things like you do. (3) No matter how provocative her behavior, try to be there for her. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s the only way to bridge her sense of isolation. (4) If she puts on weight, don’t mention her improved appearance. Mention something else, like her improved confidence.
Anorexia and guilt
Many parents of anorectics feel guilty that their child has developed this condition. They feel responsible. If this sounds like you, let me emphasize that anorexia could happen to any daughter, my own included. There are no firm causes and no simple solutions. If you need help, don’t delay. See your doctor.