Eating disorders can have a devastating impact on both mental and physical health. It is an issue that has become more prevalent in recent years, affecting almost 10 million Americans every year—most of whom are adolescents and young adults. Disordered eating behaviors can often lead to extreme reactions and long-term problems, including depression, anxiety, malnutrition, organ failure, fertility issues and sometimes death. As a psychologist specializing in this area of treatment, it is essential to assess the underlying causes of eating disorders as well as look at various psychological treatments available for recovery. In this blog post we will explore what constitutes a disordered eating behavior and how mental health professionals can effectively diagnose and treat these conditions with evidence-based approaches.
What are eating disorders and how to recognize them
Eating disorders are a group of psychological issues that can involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors related to food. When individuals have an eating disorder they may try to shape their image by either controlling their caloric intake or by compulsive overeating. Common signs that someone may be developing or struggling with an eating disorder are extreme changes in body weight, preoccupation with food and calories, secrecy about eating habits, avoidance of social situations involving food, and the use of laxatives or diuretics. It is important for those around an individual experiencing this to be aware of potential signs and help them seek assistance if needed.
The physical and psychological effects of eating disorders
Eating disorders have a dire impact on both physical and psychological health. Common physical effects include hugely complex issues related to weight, such as decreased muscle mass, suppression of the immune system, hair loss, heart problems and more. Mentally, individuals may experience high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, distorted body image and overall emotional distress. Sadly, eating disorders can even prove fatal in extreme cases. In short, it is essential that people be vigilant about their own mental and physical health when it comes to eating disorders and be proactive about seeking help if necessary.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, can have potentially life-threatening physical and psychological implications for those who are struggling with them. In order to recognize the signs of an eating disorder in a loved one or even yourself, it is important to understand the characteristic symptoms of each condition.
- Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, accompanied by restrictive eating habits, leading to dangerously low body weight and nutritional deficiencies.
- Bulimia nervosa: Characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse
- Binge eating disorder: Characterized by episodes of uncontrollable overeating, often in response to emotions or stress
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Characterized by severe difficulties with food intake due to lack of appetite, avoidance of certain foods or textures, strong food aversions, etc.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): A category for disordered eating patterns that don't meet the criteria for any other specific disorder.
Tips for helping someone with an eating disorder
If you suspect that someone close to you is struggling with an eating disorder, the first step should be to start a conversation. Though it can feel uncomfortable or intimidating, understanding the situation and acknowledging it is important for getting them the support they need. When reaching out, remain as supportive and as non-judgemental as possible. Helping someone with an eating disorder will require patience, but it can be incredibly rewarding when they make progress in their recovery journey. It's essential to keep in mind that everyone's experience is unique and different approaches may work better for some than others. If your loved one isn't comfortable talking about their condition, providing resources such as books or online support groups can still be a helpful gesture. Above all else, always remind them that you are there for them no matter what.
Getting professional help for eating disorders
Eating disorders can be a challenging struggle to face, but getting professional help is the best step to take. Treatments such as psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and nutritional counseling can help people who suffer from eating disorders understand their condition, how it affects them, and how to manage the emotions and habits that contribute to their illness. These treatments address both the physical and psychological impacts of an eating disorder and provide someone with the skills necessary for lasting recovery. Getting professional help requires courage and a commitment to learning healthier behavior patterns, but can result in long-term personal gains. Invest in yourself by taking the first step towards recovery: seek out services that are suited to your individual needs.
Psychotherapy is a commonly used form of treatment for people with eating disorders. It can help individuals address underlying issues and unhealthy behaviors, cope with difficult emotions, learn better coping skills, build healthy relationships and self-esteem, challenge distorted thinking patterns, and develop a healthier relationship to food. Types of psychotherapies that are commonly used in the treatment of eating disorders include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), family-based therapy, and acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT).
How family members can support a loved one with an eating disorder
Supporting a loved one with an eating disorder can present many challenges to families. Listening to the person’s feelings, providing encouragement, being non-judgmental and treating them with respect are all key elements to make sure that your family member feels accepted and encouraged in their recovery journey. Respect the individual's autonomy by avoiding controlling behaviors. Encourage healthy patterns of behavior by setting realistic goals for recovery, ensuring access to proper medical care, and providing a nurturing environment. Setting a good example by being respectful of your own body image can also be beneficial. Most importantly, express your unconditional love and remind them often that they are not alone.
Eating disorders are serious mental and physical illnesses that require professional treatment and care. Knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, as well as learning how to best support a loved one, is key to creating a safe space for those struggling. While it can be challenging to know where to start in providing assistance and support toward recovery, its important to remember that expressing love and compassion during this time is essential. Despite the daunting nature of eating disorders, hope exists in manageable steps that involve seeking professional help, setting achievable goals with realistic expectations, maintaining communication among family members, getting adequate restful sleep, avoiding triggers and increasing positive activities. Taking these necessary steps can help make amazing changes in those who suffer from an eating disorder--changes that will last a lifetime.