Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses; they are not a lifestyle choice or a diet gone ‘too far.’
For some people, restricting their food and weight can be a way of controlling areas of life that feel out of their control and their body image can come to define their entire sense of self worth. It can also be a way of expressing emotions that may feel too complex or frightening such as pain, stress or anxiety.
Restrictive dieting and excessive exercise can be contributing factors to the onset of Anorexia. Women and girls with Anorexia may use dieting behaviour in a bid to achieve a culturally constructed thin ideal whereas men may over exercise and control their diet to achieve a muscular body.
It is commonly accepted that Anorexia is more frequently diagnosed in females across the ages. However, a recent population study has suggested that in adolescents, there are an equal number of males and females suffering from this illness.
Restricted energy intake
A person with Anorexia is unable to maintain what is considered to be a normal and healthy weight. They could also have lost a considerable amount of weight in a short period of time.
A fear of gaining weight
Even when people with Anorexia are underweight, starved or malnourished they still possess an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight.
Disturbed body image
When someone has Anorexia the amount of attention they place on their body image can be enormous. The person’s self worth can become entirely defined by the way they think they look. A person with Anorexia can also develop a distorted view of their body. They may see themselves as overweight when in reality they are dangerously underweight. Frequently there is a preoccupation with certain body parts, particularly the abdomen, buttocks and thighs.
Bulimia is characterised by repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours.
In addition, people with bulimia place an excessive emphasis on body shape or weight in their self-evaluation. This can lead to the person’s sense of self-esteem and self worth being wholly defined by the way they look.
What is binge eating?
Binge eating involves two key features:
Eating a very large amount of food within a relatively short period of time
Feeling a sense of loss of control while eating (e.g. feeling unable to stop yourself from eating)
What are compensatory behaviours?
Compensatory behaviours are used as a way of trying to control weight after binge eating episodes. They include:
Misusing laxatives or diuretics
Use of any drugs, illicit, prescription and/or ‘over the counter’ inappropriately for weight control
Binge Eating Disorder
This condition describes frequent periods of overeating “binging” but without the compensating behaviour of bullemia nervosa. It is characterised by:
Frequent episodes of binge eating
A person with Binge Eating Disorder will repeatedly engage in binge eating episodes where they eat a large amount of food in a short period of time. During these episodes they will feel a loss of control over their eating and may not be able to stop even if they want to.
A person with Binge Eating Disorder will often have a range of identifiable eating habits. These can include eating very quickly, eating when they are not physically hungry and continuing to eat even when they are full, to the point that they feel uncomfortable.
Feelings around food
Feelings of guilt and shame are highly prevalent in people with Binge Eating Disorder. People with Binge Eating Disorder often feel guilty or ashamed about the amount, and the way they eat during a binge eating episode. Binge eating often occurs at times of stress, anger, boredom or distress. At such times, binge eating is used as a way to cope with challenging emotions.
Behaviours around food
Because of their feelings around food, people with Binge Eating Disorder are often very secretive about their eating habits and choose to eat alone.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Real Monsters: Mental Illness creature designs by Toby Allen. http://www.zestydoesthings.com/ used with permission and thanks!
Let’s face it – at one time or another you’ve wished a part of your body looked a little different to what it does. It might be that you think your thighs are too big, your skin’s not perfect, or your nose has that little bump in the middle that everyone can see. This kind of thinking is pretty common and relatively normal, whether it’s true or not. However, this kind of thinking becomes a problem when it starts to rule your life. You become totally preoccupied with the part of your body that you think is not okay and these beliefs severely interfere with the quality of your life. This kind of obsessing over a part of your body is known as body dysmorphic disorder (or BDD).
There are many different types of behaviours and symptoms that you might experience if you have BDD, however not everyone experiences every one. Some signs of body dysmorphic disorder include:
Frequently checking out how you look in mirrors
Constantly making sure you look clean and well groomed
Frequently touching the part of your body that you don’t like
Trying to hide or disguise the body part or yourself
Avoiding going out or being with others because you feel so self-conscious about your appearance
Trying to ‘fix’ the body part – through exercise, medication, surgery, and other sorts of treatment
If you are concerned that these behaviours sound familiar it is important that you speak to a doctor or psychologist to find out more.
What causes body dysmorphic disorder?
BDD does not have a single cause. It is often due to a variety of different physical and mental health issues. Some of the factors that may contribute to having BDD include:
Having low self-esteem and negative beliefs about yourself
Negative self-talk – for example, thinking that life would be so much better if you could ‘fix’ a certain part of your body
If you are suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important first and foremost that you seek some professional support. In addition to professional help, you might like to consider the following tools for eating disorder self-help which may help in your recovery:
Keep a ‘recovery journal’
Fill it with positive and affirming thoughts. Write about why you want to recover, how your eating disorder has impacted your life, where you want to be in 5 or 10 years from now, and anything else that will help to keep you motivated to recover. It’s totally up to you to choose what you write in your journal.
Spend time around supportive people
Try to find people who are comfortable with their bodies and don’t spend all their time talking about dieting and food. These might be people who have qualities that you admire and want to develop within yourself.
Talk to other people who are recovering/recovered
Mutual support can be motivating, and seeing someone else make progress or enjoying life might help to keep you inspired, too. Support groups can be a really great way of seeking support from people going through similar things. Check out our fact sheet on where to get help for more information on support groups in your area.
Go on body-positive outings
If body image is something you’re really struggling with, take a trip to the art gallery, and have a look at all the different shapes and sizes that beauty comes in. It sounds a bit lame, but it can be a really uplifting thing to do.
You can also go and hang out around your local shops. Try to notice the diversity of shapes around you, not a certain type of shape. You’ll notice that not one person has the same body shape and that’s ok.
Read recovery-oriented books
These can help inspire and keep you motivated. Eating Disorders Victoria has some great suggestions for good books to read if you, or someone you know, are experiencing an eating disorder.
Take up a hobby
Try something new, or go back to something you used to love. There are heaps of different hobbies that are fun and interesting. You might find that you’re actually an awesome guitar player, or have a flair for painting.
Do things that nourish
This could be anything from planting a veggie patch, to climbing a tree, to going sailing, or engaging in voluntary work. It doesn’t have to be big; it doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to make you feel good about yourself. Experiment with different things – part of recovery is getting to know yourself all over again (or for the first time!) and you won’t necessarily like everything you try.
If you’ve been affected by anything here on CheckPoint and would like to talk to someone, please refer to our Global Mental Health Directory, or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.