by Dr. Tali Shenfield, Clinical Psychologist
Eating disorders are far more common than you may think. This disorder is the most common psychological problem treated by mental health practitioners. Eating disorders primarily affect women. Around ninety percent of people with eating disorders are teenage or young adult women. There are a number of theories as to why young women would be the most susceptible to eating disorders. But, the cause in probably a cultural one. For example, in Renaissance Europe, wealthy young women would over eat because fat was considered beautiful. Just look at the paintings depicting the female form at the time. That was the ideal. However, there is also a psychological component as well. Bingeing and purging, a type of eating disorder, was practically a sport at certain times in Ancient Rome and was practiced by both men and women. At those days, nobody would classify it as a mental health disease.
These days, a slim figure is the female ideal. And this actually isn’t as bad as it was. The most famous model of the Twentieth Century was a woman named Twiggy. And she wasn’t named that for nothing.
Psychologists deal with three types of eating disorders. The first is Anorexia, which is simply starving yourself. It’s more technical name is anorexia nervosa. It’s pretty easy to tell if you have this disorder. If you are not eating in order to loose weight when you are already at least fifteen percent under normal body weight for a person of your build and height, then you may have this disorder.
The next is binge eating, where a person starves herself for a period of time, then over eats and then goes back to starving herself. The starvation may cause the overeating, but if this behavior is repetitive, then it’s very likely that an eating disorder is present.
The last is bulimia or bulimia nervosa. This is a cycle of bingeing and purging, where a person eats excessively and then gets rid of the food by vomiting. There are other types of bulimia including the use of enemas, diuretics or laxatives or obsessive exercise to purge the calories. Bulimia can often go undetected as body weight will tend to remain normal and the bingeing and purging usually takes place in secret because the person suffering from the disorder considers her behavior to be shameful.
What if you have an Eating Disorder
You should get help from a psychologist or psychotherapist, if you suspect that you have an eating disorder. Such disorders can result in severe medical problems and can actually threaten your life.
Fortunately, the cure rate for eating disorders is quite high. Treatment usually includes psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy with the addition of medications when appropriate.
If you know someone who may be suffering from an eating disorder or think that you may be afflicted yourself, get help from a mental health professional as soon as possible.
Remember that having an eating disorder is not your fault. There are many complex causes that often go beyond what one individual can cope with. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important to seek professional help from a psychologist or psychotherapist as the first step on the road to recovery.
Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder
You may suspect that someone you know or a loved one may have an eating disorder and yet deny that they have any problem at all.
Diagnosing an eating disorder is difficult even for mental health professionals. The first step is to determine if it’s a temporary phase or an actual disorder that has and will continue to grow over time. Therefore, the best first step is to consult a professional; with or without the person you suspect has an eating disorder. And don’t expect that the person you are trying to help will be grateful for your assistance. Gratitude only exists after a problem has been solved and not before. You can even expect emotional outbursts and demands that you “mind your own business.”
Don’t take it personally. If you at least consult a psychologist or psychotherapist, even if only on your own, you will have a better understanding and more information to work with.
Just as with any other denied or ignored problem, an eating disorder will get worse if unhandled. And coping only digs people in deeper. There are no easy, fast solutions and no two individuals are exactly alike. But, seeking help from a mental health professional is the first step to recovery.