Eating disorders, like any mental illness, have overt symptoms, obvious challenges that tend to receive all the focus. For instance, when someone is depressed, the feelings of sadness, lack of energy, and the pain of unworthiness seem to make up the experience of depression.
However, there are invisible aspects to this disease too. These are the underlying issues that led to the depression in the first place. Perhaps there is an unresolved trauma, such as physical abuse, or domestic violence or the continued family message that anger could not be expressed.
These invisible facets to a mental illness are true for an eating disorder as well. The visible are easy to see: the binging, vomiting, excessive exercising, starving yourself, overuse of laxatives, avoiding food, absence of menstruation in women, and an unrealistic body image, to name a few.
To be diagnosed with this disorder, an individual must exhibit the following symptoms:
- A refusal to maintain a body weight that is considered within a normal range for age and height.
- An intense fear of gaining weight or being fat, even though the client is underweight.
- A disturbance in the way that the body is seen, such as a denial of the seriousness of a low body weight.
- The absence of at least consecutive menstrual cycles.
Those with this disorder often begin with an intense desire to lose weight, which transforms into a morbid fear of gaining weight, to the point of endangering their life. Being thin is a way of exerting power and control, which becomes the most crucial and necessary task for survival, despite the fact that they are harming their body and losing their life as a result. The most prevalent occurrence of anorexia nervosa is found among adolescent girls than in any other segment of the population.
To be diagnosed with this disorder, a teen must exhibit the following symptoms:
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating, that is, eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time with a strong lack of control and feelings of not being able to stop eating.
- Behavior that attempts to compensate for the overeating such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, frequent fasting, or excessive exercise.
In the initial stages of this disorder, the compensatory behavior, such as binging, is a way to ease the guilt from having eaten so much food. However, later it becomes a method of mood regulation.
Yet, the explicit symptoms are only the tip of the iceberg. There is often a lot more going on underneath, which frequently include a complex whirlwind of intense emotions and thoughts that are contributing to the eating disorder, perhaps without the affected person’s knowledge. In fact, often these complex feelings and thoughts are unconscious, or unknown, or repressed.
The invisible facets to an eating disorder include feelings of inadequacy, a belief in unworthiness, loneliness, intense fear, anger, anxiety, and shame. These feelings might have stemmed from dysfunctional family dynamics, childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse, violence in the home, or other events. Part of treating eating disorders is addressing both the visible symptoms as well as the invisible, the underlying psychological issues that contribute to the illness.
However, this can be more complex than one might imagine. The roots of disordered eating are hidden within the American culture. Our society is obsessed with losing weight and staying thin. We are afraid of feeling and looking fat and will do whatever it takes to keep a slim figure. Trendy diets, the latest techniques to eat right, and hundreds of infomercials flood the media every day. Our relationship with food is more than unhealthy; it’s dysfunctional.
Sadly, the rate of occurrence of these disorders is only increasing. This is partly because the conversations about these mental illnesses are happening more frequently. At the same time, the increased rate of occurrence is partly due to the fact that the underlying issues in Western culture have yet to be addressed, examined, and healed.
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