Eating disorders awareness week
Eating disorders awareness week
  • Around 149 weeks pass before support is sought for help with an eating disorder.
  • To put it another way: an average of almost three years of suffering without any assistance
  • Early intervention saves lives- it can be treated successfully.

What is an eating disorder?

They are psychological conditions that play out in an individual’s relationship to food, eating and body image, though these elements are rarely what the issue is actually about for the individual; eating disorders mask a variety of psychological problems and develop as a coping mechanism in reaction to the world a person is experiencing.

Anorexia Nervosa– Characterised by maintaining a low body weight which is perceived as ideal to the individual. By restricting nutritional intake, the effects on the body are widespread- affecting cognitive, emotional, behavioural, social and physical functioning.

Individuals can develop rituals and rely on foods perceived as safe in order to get through a day. Restricted food intake can be coupled with excessive exercise in order to maintain or obtain an ideal body image. The eating of food can be become a very distressing and painful experience both for those supporting the individual as well as the individual themselves. The eating of a meal is not about pleasure nor survival and it becomes something to avoid rather than partake in. One of the fundamental issues with anorexia is that individuals are likely to have experienced a prolonged negative self-image which means that the ideal or perfect body image is never achieved- they regard themselves as larger than their actual weight or shape and by holding this perceptual exaggeration of themselves they also fear getting any larger and putting weight on.

Reasons for the development of the illness are wide ranging and complex however Anorexia develops as a coping mechanism for the inner turmoil a person is experiencing and is rarely actually about food to begin with.

Signs and symptoms vary from person to person and if you believe someone close to you is suffering from this, or indeed yourself, then please check out the list of symptoms at:

Anorexia is life threatening if left untreated, not only will it impact in all the ways we have already discussed, but the long-term effects can be devastating: organ failure, osteoporosis, infertility or fertility problems.

Bulimia Nervosa– is a distressing cyclical disorder characterised by dieting, binging food, and purging (vomiting or laxative abuse) after over-eating.

Individuals report feeling shame and guilt and operate binging in secrecy, which can lead to feelings of isolation and feeling like a failure after a binging episode. Due to the cycle being in operation, bulimia suffers tend to maintain their body weight which can make detection of a problem difficult by those around them, unlike with Anorexia where the effects are very noticeable.

In common with Anorexia though is that the cycle has been established in reaction to the individual’s reality, which likely consists of troubling emotions, thoughts and experiences that they are struggling to process and deal with. Enacting the cycle is a way of coping and dealing with their problems.

Please see the list of signs and symptoms at:

Again, Bulimia can have very serious effects on the body, including (but not limited to) digestive complaints from frequent vomiting and laxative usage, as well as dental problems, kidney failure, heart failure and dehydration.

There are other eating disorders but anorexia and bulimia are the most commonly publicised yet still misunderstood. Anybody can develop one at any age, it doesn’t discriminate against gender or culture either, nor financial status. Whilst we can list signs and symptoms the experience of any eating disorder will be different in different individuals as are reasons as to why a person develops one as a coping strategy. This is also true of treatment; what works for one person may vary greatly to the next person. What is important to remember is that early intervention aids recovery greatly, but they can be treated at any stage of illness; it no longer needs to be a terminal diagnosis.

How can you support someone experiencing an eating disorder:

  • Your own self-care in this situation is equally important- supporting this illness can be frustrating, confusing and heart-wrenching- you still have your own needs to meet too. This isn’t selfish, this is necessary- if your own mental health suffers too then it will be extremely difficult to support someone also enduring psychological distress.
  • Early intervention is very important- if you think a loved one is suffering then seeking professional advice as soon as possible is crucial.
  • The individual suffering can’t recover if they don’t recognise that they have a serious issue- denial can one of the biggest hurdles to recovery. Education on the subject can benefit the situation enormously.
  • Releasing the coping strategy that they have used to handle life is a very difficult thing to do, they may well realise that their illness is self-destructive but they haven’t as yet got anything to replace their coping strategy- so why would they let go of it? It is important to remember that this may well have been going on for some time so unlearning an entrenched habit can be very distressing; you or a professional are asking them to change and people fear change.
  • Show support, don’t just verbalise your support. Actions speak louder than words. If people feel supported then they are more likely to begin to make changes or at least being to experiment with new strategies to see which parts of the old strategies they can adapt to loosing.
  • Resist the urge to fix them- you can’t. It’s a personal journey that involves facing the things they have been trying to avoid (emotions, traumas, memories, challenges, other people etc), it takes time and that length of time varies from individual to individual.
  • Be respectful when talking about food- labelling good/ bad adds to the emotionality of the situation. Weight gain/ loss, body image conversations require tact and are best left as taboo subjects as this may well cause distress.
  • Be transparent about your feelings and encourage the same back. Open communication can help a person feel included; you don’t have to agree on everything but being heard is important for both parties.
  • Remember that recovery is not linear and is a long process- it may take time for the right combination of new behaviours to form. It’s trial and error until what works for that person starts to actually work.

The biggest aspect of support comes around meal times. It will be an anxious and fearful event each and every single meal.

  • Try and cook together, allowing meal choices from the individual. Choices are important.
  • Make a meal plan for the week that suits you both and stick to those meals- changes may induce further fear or anxiety.
  • Eat at the same time each day where possible, routine is important.
  • Conversation at the table should be light, humorous or distracting- avoid talking about the food itself.
  • Encouragement to eat may be necessary- you’ll need to strike a balance between encouragement and not badgering them.
  • At the end of a meal can also be very anxiety inducing; pre-plan distractions or activities with them for after then meal as a distraction.

Whilst this article has been aimed at supporting suffers it also acts as support for the sufferer too. All these aspects can be discussed with those around you if you chose to ask for help and support. It does take you being honest and aware of what is going on for you right now. Please know that you can and will be supported and that recovery is absolutely possible with perseverance and help. Your coping strategy has gotten you through to where you are now, you have survived, but it is not working for you any longer in a productive way- it’s no longer a support, and it’s affecting all aspects of your life. Understand what is going on for you then let somebody understand you; you are important, you do matter and you can recover.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *