Understanding the Condition: Anorexia

Most people have heard of eating disorders, and although not the most common, anorexia usually springs to mind when they think of food addictions or eating disorders. While not the type of eating disorder that affects most, anorexia is probably the most well-known because of its devastating consequences. Images of emaciated young girls on the brink of losing their life because they are unable to eat often appear in magazines or in tabloid newspapers, which has ensured that most of us are aware of this destructive illness. However, despite knowing full well what it is, most do not really know what anorexia is like.

What Is Anorexia?

You may believe that anorexia is a condition someone chooses to have when in fact it is actually an illness of the brain. Those affected tend to suffer greatly with their body image and see themselves differently to how others see them. Anorexics often view themselves as much larger than they are, and because they are striving for what they see as the perfect body or weight will severely restrict their calorie intake to achieve their aims.

Not knowing what anorexia is like for those affected can lead some individuals to think that sufferers just have a desire to be slim. The reality is that they are struggling with a serious mental health condition that causes them to develop unhealthy eating habits. Moreover, these unhealthy eating habits can have a devastating impact on their quality of life.

What is it Like to Have Anorexia?

There is no single thing that triggers an eating disorder such as anorexia. For example, some people will admit that it was a throwaway comment by a family member or friend that caused them to see themselves as inadequate or overweight. The same comment may, for example, have been made to another person with no impact.

In others, it might be pressure to look a certain way for a job or sport. There are certain jobs such as modelling or jockeying that require people to be a certain weight. Athletes, ballet dancers and gymnasts may also feel pressure to look a certain way.

Understanding what anorexia is like can be a struggle for those not affected themselves. It is difficult to comprehend why those affected don’t ‘just eat’ when they are painfully thin and are experiencing a range of physical symptoms as a result of starving themselves.

But those who have anorexia do not see themselves as ‘too thin’ or needing to eat. In fact, they will often fiercely challenge the notion that they should put on weight. They might become obsessed with avoiding certain foods that they perceive as being ‘bad’.

For most anorexics, food intake is something that they can control. This becomes extremely important, particularly in those who feel as though they have no control over other aspects of their life. Some see losing weight as a victory, and nothing that anyone else says or does will make them change their views.

Signs and Symptoms

When a person first develops anorexia, it can be difficult for others to see what is going on. Most people who develop this condition will go to great lengths to hide it from others. It might begin with them lying about the fact that they have eaten already so that they do not have to have meals with family members or friends. Some will say that they are not hungry because they had a big lunch and that they will eat later.

Other signs include:

  • hiding food
  • fasting
  • moving food around the plate to make it look as though they have eaten
  • avoiding eating with others
  • obsessively counting calories and only eating ‘low calorie’ or ‘low fat’ foods
  • having an intense fear of gaining weight
  • lying about how much weight has been lost
  • exercising excessively
  • taking diet pills or laxatives
  • disappearing to the toilet after eating (to make themselves sick)
  • having a distorted body image
  • becoming socially isolated or withdrawn
  • fatigue
  • hair loss
  • trouble sleeping.

The above list is just some of the signs that may be noticeable to family members and friends of those affected by anorexia.

The Consequences

Anorexia is a severe illness and those affected risk many long-term health problems unless they get help. Anorexia can lead to physical and mental health problems such as:

  • osteoporosis (loss of bone density)
  • heart problems
  • kidney damage
  • liver damage
  • fertility problems
  • erosion of tooth enamel
  • weakened immune system
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts.

Anorexia is life-threatening if it not treated. When food intake is severely restricted, the body will begin to shut down after a while. Those affected could also become suicidal, with many ending up taking their life. In fact, those with anorexia are fifty-seven times more likely to commit suicide than someone without.

Anorexia can have a devastating impact on the rest of the family as well. Caring for a child or other person with anorexia is a horrific experience for family members and friends. Watching someone you love deliberately starving themselves and knowing that no amount of pleading or begging will change their mind can be traumatic.

Anorexics tend to become withdrawn and will isolate themselves from others. This is often because they are trying to hide their condition from those around them. In the early days when family members and friends may not be aware of what is going on, this can cause tension within relationships as loved ones will not understand the change in behaviour in the affected person.

Work or school can also suffer because of anorexia. Most people who suffer from the condition will have low self-esteem, and many will develop depression. As the condition progresses, the individual will become increasingly more isolated and may become preoccupied with food and their body image. This will have a negative impact on their quality of life and can cause work or school performance to suffer as a result.

Some anorexics will begin self-harming as a way to cope with the emotions they are experiencing. Others will turn to substance abuse, making their problems even worse.

Getting Help for Anorexia

It is hard to know what anorexia is like without suffering with it yourself, but you should know that treatment is available to sufferers. You may find it a struggle to get your loved one to admit to the problem in the first place though as most people with anorexia do not see themselves in the same way that others do. They may resist the idea of help – at least initially.

If you are worried about a loved one, talk to your doctor who will ask questions about the affected person’s behaviour. The doctor is likely to ask about his or her eating habits and other behaviours to determine if there is a problem that warrants help.

If you are worried that a loved one has an eating disorder, it is important that you speak out and voice your concerns. It is natural to want to say nothing and hope that you are wrong, but you might even find that your family member or friend has been afraid to ask for help and is relieved that you have brought the issue up.

Pick a time where your loved one is unlikely to be distracted and where you can have a good chat about the situation. Try not to lecture or criticise him or her. Show support and explain why you are concerned. It might be best to have specific examples of anorexic behaviour that you can present to him or her.

Above all, do not give up if he or she denies that there is a problem – this is a common response. Most anorexics are not ready to admit to having a problem. You may need to be patient and wait for him or her to come around to your way of thinking. Even if your loved one is reluctant to accept help at this stage, know that you have planted a seed and assure him or her that you are ready to offer care and support as and when required.

If you would like help on how to approach a person believe to be anorexic, you can speak to one of our fully trained advisors. Here at Sanctuary Lodge, we specialise in treating eating disorders such as anorexia. Our advisors can answer any of your queries and provide information on the next steps to help the affected individual on the road to recovery. Please call today to find out more about us and what we do.