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Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders in the world, affecting approximately eight out of every 100,000 people, according to Current Opinion in Psychiatry. The disorder affects mostly young women ages 15 through 24, but younger children and adults can also suffer from this condition. Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder that can take a devastating toll on your body, your mind and your sense of self.
The disease is marked by:
- A preoccupation with losing weight, in spite of being severely underweight for your age and body type
- A distorted body image that does not reflect your physical reality
- An obsessive need to control your food intake through ritualistic behaviors like dividing up portions or eating only a limited range of foods
- A compulsive need to burn calories through exercise
- An obsession with weighing yourself or checking your body in the mirror constantly to see whether you’ve gained weight or appear “fat”
- An obsession with photos of food, restaurant menus or recipes, even though you eat very little yourself
- The use of self-induced vomiting, diet pills, illegal stimulants or laxatives to speed up weight loss
If you have, or a daughter, a sister or a friend has, the symptoms of anorexia, you may feel frustrated, confused or even hopeless. However, with professional treatment, compassionate care, patience and determination, it’s possible to recover from this eating disorder and lead a truly healthy life.
Health Risks of Anorexia
Our weight-obsessed culture often idolizes actresses, models and other celebrities who maintain a slim figure or who’ve lost a lot of weight. If you suffer from anorexia, you may believe that you’re observing a healthy diet by choosing low-calorie foods and eating small portions. You may gain a sense of empowerment and control from exercising religiously, regulating your eating habits and from consuming smaller and smaller quantities of food.
In reality, anorexia is a form of self-imposed starvation, which can lead to life-threatening malnutrition and dehydration. Ultimately the nutritional deficiencies caused by anorexia can lead to these serious complications, such as:
- Unstable blood sugar levels
- Imbalanced electrolytes
- Irregular heartbeat
- Abnormally low body temperature
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Hair loss
If you suspect that someone close to you has an eating disorder, look for physical signs like pallor, dry skin, hollowed cheeks, hair loss, dark circles under the eyes, and a fine layer of body hair on the forearms or legs (a condition called lanugo). Young women with anorexia often wear baggy clothing that conceals their bodies, both because they feel hideously overweight and because they’re afraid that their weight loss efforts will be discovered.
Convincing someone with anorexia that she has an eating disorder can be extremely difficult. The disease causes a severe distortion of reality that can make a skeletal body look like it’s grossly obese. People with anorexia suffer from profound psychological disturbances that drive them to seek comfort, attention or control in highly structured eating patterns. They may isolate themselves from their friends and family so they can pursue these behaviors, even at the expense of their emotional health.
An intervention may be required to save a relative or good friend from literally starving herself to death. The Archives of General Psychiatry reports that anorexia causes more deaths than any other eating disorder. Starvation, cardiac arrest and suicide are among the most common causes of death in people who struggle with this disease. Parents, friends or spouses often have to intervene directly in order to persuade a loved one with anorexia to get help.
Causes of Anorexia Nervosa
There’s a popular saying that while diets don’t cause eating disorders, almost every eating disorder begins with a diet. Many girls and young women who become anorexic start with the healthy intention of losing a few pounds. But instead of stopping at a normal weight, they continue to diet and exercise strenuously for reasons that are still unknown. For most people who suffer from anorexia, the disorder has more than one cause.
- Cultural pressure. In a society that places tremendous pressure on girls and women to meet certain standards of body weight and beauty, it’s easy to go overboard with diet and exercise, and there’s never any lack of motivation in the media for girls who want to lose a few pounds.
- Family factors. Even in a loving household, family dynamics can contribute to an eating disorder. Girls who are overweight may get negative comments from parents or siblings that drive them to extremes of dieting. Teenagers who feel ignored by their parents may turn to anorexic behaviors to get attention or to make themselves feel in control.
- Biological conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, the qualities that cause anorexic behavior may be passed down from one generation to the next, reflecting a genetic tendency to develop anorexia nervosa. Brain chemistry may also contribute to your likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
- Psychological disturbances. Girls with anorexia may have a deep lack of self-esteem and a tendency to compensate by overachieving at school, in sports or in extracurricular activities. Many anorexics are perfectionists who insist on having flawless clothing, hair and makeup or on earning perfect grades. Inside, they may feel a frightening lack of control over their bodies and their lives. They may feel threatened by the sexual changes of puberty or concerned about attracting attention from men. Anorexia allows a growing teen to remain in a “girlish” state; in the advanced stages of the disease, girls may stop menstruating.
How Is Anorexia Related to Addiction?
Anorexia, substance abuse and addiction overlap in many ways. It’s not uncommon for anorexics to use diet pills, laxatives or stimulants like meth or cocaine to support weight loss. Some anorexics may use sedatives to relieve anxiety and depression or to help themselves sleep.
Anorexia is also similar to addiction in that it involves a set of compulsive behaviors that threaten your physical and emotional health. Like a drug addict who seeks comfort in cocaine, heroin or marijuana, an anorexic seeks a certain emotional release in extreme dieting and rigorous exercise habits. But for the anorexic, the pursuit of the perfect body is driven by a need to relieve overwhelming fears or anxieties. For the addict, the pursuit of a high is driven by physical or psychological dependence on the drug.
Like addiction, anorexia is often characterized by multiple relapses into destructive habits. And like addiction, anorexia can be treated most effectively in a focused, medically monitored setting. By the time they get to rehab, many anorexics are in danger of severe health complications. They may need to be monitored around the clock during the rehabilitation process to ensure that they stay on track with their treatment plan. Compassionate, attentive care is needed to help someone with anorexia learn how to consume foods and liquids normally without intense fear.
How Is Anorexia Treated?
Although anorexia nervosa is one of the top three illnesses among teenagers, only 10 percent of the people who have this disorder get the treatment they need, according to statistics gathered by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health (DMH). The DMH also reports that 80 percent of the girls and women who do receive professional care don’t stay in rehab long enough for treatment to be effective. It may take three to six months to recover from the health effects of anorexia and to learn effective coping strategies for dealing with the disorder. However, many clients are discharged after only a few weeks of care.
Treatment for anorexia requires a multi-faceted approach that involves psychiatric counseling, nutritional supplementation, behavioral modification and relapse prevention. Your treatment team should include counselors who have specialized training in managing this complex, deep-seated psychological condition. Group therapy is a key component of anorexia recovery, offering valuable support and advice from peers. In a group setting, you can share your experiences with others, provide encouragement to new members and draw strength from clients who are further along in the recovery process.
Recovery begins with medical management to restore your health and prevent the dangerous complications of self-starvation. Once you’re medically stable, the focus of treatment shifts to establishing a normal weight. Because most anorexics are terrified of weight gain, this process may take weeks, months or even years. At the same time, intensive psychotherapy will help you unravel the reasons for your eating disorder and help you find healthy ways to cope with the anxiety, depression, stress or fear that fuel anorexia.
Finding the Right Treatment Facility
When you’re searching for a treatment center for yourself or someone you love, it’s important to find a facility that offers a specialized program for anorexia recovery. The nutritional needs and medical requirements of anorexics are highly specialized, and not all rehab facilities have the resources to successfully treat this eating disorder. Look for a facility that offers the intensive psychological and clinical support you need to regain your inner strength and restore your physical health.
Here at Axis, we offer this kind of support. Contact us today for more information.