The Dangers of Eating Disorders and the Journey Towards Recovery
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate compared to any other mental illnesses recognised today. Currently, between 1.25 and 3.4 million people are affected by eating disorders in the UK alone.
Illnesses that fall under the umbrella term “eating disorders” go far beyond behaviours of under-eating (as one would observe with anorexia nervosa), and are often related to deep-seated issues with food, exercise, control, or body image. Other common disorders within this category of mental disorders include bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, pica, rumination disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
What makes eating disorders so dangerous is the physical manifestation of the disorder on the individual’s body and physical wellbeing, as well as the resultant medical complications. The risk to overall wellbeing and longevity is therefore undeniable and incredibly serious.
Despite these harsh realities, however, it’s also important to remember that thousands of people recover from all types of disordered eating every year, and that there is always hope.
With the right treatment and support, people with eating disorders can develop healthier relationships with food, with their bodies, and with the trauma that often underpins their illness.
In this article, we will consider the impact of disordered eating on the individual and their loved ones, and explore how healthier relationships with the self, the body, and the mind can be fostered on the journey towards healing and recovery.
The impact on physical & mental wellbeing
Eating disorders impact both the mind and body. Some of the main effects include:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Cardiovascular issues
- Tooth decay
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired memory
- Depression and anxiety
Placing strain on families and loved ones, eating disorders also heavily affect interpersonal relationships.
Here are some of the reasons why:
- Sufferers and their loved ones may face stigma and discrimination at times
- Loved ones may feel helpless and frustrated
- Conflict, communication problems, and trust issues are also common in families battling eating disorders. Family members may feel lied to or deceived by the person with the disorder
- They can lead to financial worries amongst family members, as these conditions can be costly to treat
- Eating disorders can lead to intimacy issues in romantic relationships
Early signs and symptoms of disordered eating
Preventing eating disorders from wreaking havoc on an individual’s life is a lot easier when symptoms are spotted early on. Since these disorders are so incredibly complex – with a wide range of causes and manifestations – and sometimes without visible external effects, identifying these disordered mental and behavioural patterns can be challenging.
Some early warning signs to look out for include:
- A preoccupation with food
- Changes and restrictions relating to eating habits
- Social withdrawal
- Changes in mood, particularly around mealtimes
- A regimented exercise routine
These are but a few examples of behavioural changes that might be indicative of an eating disorder. Although, it’s important to remember that different people may display different signs of an eating disorder, each with their own unique set of symptoms.
Since ‘normal’ looks very different for each of us, we can generally consider behaviour to be problematic or ‘concerning’ when it falls outside the normal range of behaviour for the specific individual, or if it interferes with their ability to function optimally in their daily lives.
Steps towards recovering from an eating disorder
No matter at what stage an eating disorder is diagnosed, treatment can still be effective. Common treatments for eating disorders are comprised of a few different techniques, including:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): This helps individuals change their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about themselves, their bodies, and food, which in turn can change their behaviours
- Family-based therapy (FBT): Focuses on the family as a unit and aims to improve communication, problem-solving, and coping skills
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): Focuses on the individual’s relationships and how they may contribute to the eating disorder
- Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): Helps improve the individual’s ability to regulate emotions and improve impulse control
- Nutritional counselling: Aims to restore a healthy relationship with food and the body
- Medication: Antidepressants and antipsychotics are sometimes used to treat the symptoms of eating disorders like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviour
- Support groups: This can provide individuals with a sense of community and reduce isolation
How to support someone through their recovery
Loved ones can play a critical role in eating disorder recovery, but in order to do so, they must also learn to manage their own feelings around the issue. This can look like:
- Reminding yourself that nothing is your fault
- Viewing the illness as separate from your loved one
- Going for therapy or counselling
To help support someone who is struggling with disordered eating directly, you can:
- Take time to listen without judgment
- Try to build up their self-esteem with compliments that don’t relate to their appearance
- Acknowledge that they are not to blame for what they are going through
- Maintain a balanced relationship of your own with food and exercise and avoid potentially triggering topics of conversation
- Keep building up their hope and drive to get better by pointing out things they enjoy and can look forward to in the future
Eating disorders are incredibly dangerous and can have drastic consequences for the health and happiness of individuals and their loved ones. Fortunately, with the right treatment, people can and do get better.
The path towards recovery must be paved with support from loved ones, but these individuals will also need support of their own health through this difficult time by making themselves a priority.
The Dangers of Eating Disorders and the Journey Towards Recovery
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