What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder usually characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. It often begins with a person's inability to cope with a range of emotional issues. They believe that losing weight and becoming extremely thin will help them cope and make them feel good about themselves. To achieve this, they start to severely restrict the amount of food they eat, skip meals regularly or, at a later stage, even stop eating for days together. When they do eat, they have extremely small portions and even that gives them a sense of guilt. Over time, this controlling behavior and the thinness becomes an obsession. Their weight falls well below the normal weight for a person of their age or height. To add to this they have a distorted image of their body, so even though they are visibly severely underweight, they believe that they are still overweight.
Anorexia is not a lifestyle choice as many mistakenly believe; it arises due to a person's inability to cope with deep emotional distress and a distorted, negative self-image. They have an intense fear of putting on weight. It is a serious illness with severe physical symptoms, but with proper treatment, you can return to better health.
What are the symptoms of anorexia?
People suffering from anorexia try to hide their habits and behavior from family and friends. However, there are various physical and behavioral signs that a person suffering from anorexia will show.
Physical symptoms include:
- Severe loss of weight and appearing extremely thin
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and feeling fatigued often
- Feeling unreasonably cold
- Hair starts thinning and falling; skin turns extremely dry
- Women experience irregularities in their menstrual cycle; in some cases it might even stop.
These are the some of the behavioral signs:
- Obsessing over weight and calories in food. The person will repeatedly check their weight and observe their shape in front of a mirror.
- Avoiding meals with family or friends, saying that they have already eaten or are not hungry.
- Social withdrawal and increasing irritability
- Excessive exercise and increased use of laxatives to try and lose weight.
What causes anorexia?
The exact cause of anorexia is unknown; research suggests that it is due to a combination of psychological, biological and environmental factors. People who are prone to depression and anxiety may develop the condition as a result of their attempt to cope with their problems. A person suffering from OCD may develop compulsive rituals related to food, causing them to weigh each portion of food and cut them into small, same-sized bits. In some cases, perfectionism and being overly-sensitive can lead to the condition. The exact role of genes is not known but research shows that the serotonin level in the brain also plays a role.
Young children can develop obsessions about being thin early if they have been bullied or teased about their weight in school. Peer pressure among young girls can play a role in developing the condition as well. Media and society also play a major role in today's world. The misplaced belief that thinness and beauty go hand-in-hand can play on young minds and lead them to starve themselves.
Getting treatment for anorexia
Anorexia affects both mind and body, so it requires various types of treatment. If a person suffering from anorexia is severely malnourished, they may require hospitalization. If they aren't underweight, or if they are not in any medical danger, they may opt for outpatient treatment. Treatment for anorexia has three components:
- First the person is treated for any serious health issues that they may have as a result of the eating disorder.
- Then they are given nutritional treatment, to restore their body to a healthy weight, and nutritional information to help them maintain this weight.
- They also need counseling and therapy to get over their fear of gaining weight.
The treatment is carried on simultaneously by a team of specialists. In many cases the family may also be involved in the treatment.
Caring for someone with anorexia
If someone you know is exhibiting symptoms of anorexia, the most important thing to do is convince them to get treatment. You need to be extremely gentle and patient as people suffering from the problem are likely to be very defensive about their issue and are in denial. Do not be pushy and urge the person to eat; express your concerns gently and let them know you are there for them. If your family member is suffering from anorexia, you should ensure that the rest of the family maintains a healthy eating habit; this also helps during the treatment phase as an example for the person suffering from the disorder.
Coping with anorexia
Treatment for anorexia can go on for a long time and it is important to stick to the treatment, and diet and nutrition plans drawn out for you. Try not to isolate yourself from friends and family; spending time with supportive people can make you feel better about yourself. Reading and learning about anorexia will help you understand that your fear of gaining weight is merely a symptom of the disorder; joining a support group for people with anorexia will also help you get over this fear. You may have frequent urges to weigh yourself; resist them as much as possible. Trust those who care for you and be open with them; this will help you a great deal in the treatment phase.
Studies have shown that eating disorders are more prevalent in western cultures. However, they do exist in non-western societies as well although they may not present with these exact symptoms. In India and other South Asian countries for instance, persons suffering from anorexia may not have a distorted body image or a fear of gaining weight (non-fat-phobic anorexia). They show other symptoms such as refusal to eat, but the reasons for the behavior are not necessarily related to body-image. There may be cultural factors that bring upon the onset of the disorder. In India, for example, stressors such as parental expectation and an inability to meet such expectation, may lead a person to stop eating as a means of self-punishment. Over time this could translate into a learned behavior. This is known as atypical anorexia.