When we read about eating disorders or see them portrayed in pop culture, we are shown the negative physical affects, usually focusing on food and exercise. This is, in a way, easier for us to understand as a society. Someone with an eating disorder eats less, or more, than normal. They exercise compulsively. They count calories. But is there more to it than that?
Eating disorders are often characterized by disordered eating behaviors and/or weight loss or gain – physical symptoms, of which there are many, and most of them become life threatening if gone untreated. However, the emotional distresses of eating disorders are just as significant.
While eating disorders are physically harmful to the sufferer, these physical effects – severe dehydration, bone density loss, low blood pressure and more – are only symptoms of a mental health issue that affects not only a person’s physical well being, but their mental and emotional well being as well.
How do eating disorders affect people on such a deep emotional level? Why are the behaviors associated with eating disorders often categorized as symptoms of an addiction? More importantly, how does having an eating disorder really make people feel on the inside?
Check out this video by Buzzfeed: “What It’s Like Living With An Eating Disorder”
Quick psychology of eating disorders
Similar to other mental health issues, an eating disorder starts with a series of thought patterns that eventually lead to negative outward behaviors. “I want to eat less junk food,” a completely rational desire, quickly escalates into eliminating other food groups in an attempt to eat healthier, or obsessing over eating only “healthy” foods.
- People with eating disorders develop a disturbed, often distorted image of their own bodies. If you have ever seen a photo or video in which a person stares at an image in a mirror that is completely unlike their true form, that is not an exaggerated portrayal.
- They become obsessed with finding ways to maintain or lose weight, even if it means lying, hiding or harming themselves.
- They are often in denial about the seriousness of their condition even if they are aware their behaviors are abnormal.
How a harmless choice becomes a loss of control
When someone is addicted – to a substance or to a behavior – it starts out as an honest, often innocent decision and quickly turns into an uncontrollable impulse. The same way someone addicted to the internet cannot help but click open another tab, someone with an eating disorder cannot stop engaging in behaviors that are harmful to them, even when they know they are putting themselves at risk.
When someone is addicted – to a substance or to a behavior – it starts out as an honest, often innocent decision and quickly turns into an uncontrollable impulse.Click to tweet
- Those suffering with EDs are often overcome by thoughts of food, weight, exercise, etc. even when they try to focus on school or work.
- Their fear of weight gain and preoccupation with their bodies often leads to behaviors meant to prevent that weight gain or achieve that size or weight goal, without regard to long-term consequences.
- They experience intense feelings of fear and/or anxiety when they think about what will happen if they stop harmful behaviors, such as the possibility of gaining weight if they start eating regular meals again.
- Even when they feel guilt or shame related to their issues with food and/or weight, they often continue to engage in their behaviors as a way to cope.
If you or someone you know struggles with disordered eating behaviors, regardless of the severity, know that recovery is possible for anyone. It is often a long and intense journey, but so is any other road to recovery. Finding emotional support, both professionally and personally from family and friends, in addition to physical support from doctors and nutrition professionals, is what makes healing a possibility. Learn more about eating disorders and addiction.