Oftentimes, it’s not just about wanting to look good. If you’re suffering from anorexia then you might have negative thoughts which are often from unpleasant emotions and feelings such as anxiety, fear, guilt as well as helplessness.
Anorexia (aka anorexia nervosa) is one of the most common eating disorders these days. Simply put, it’s a mental health condition in which people are obsessively concerned about their body image and keep the body weight as low as possible by restricting the amount of food consumed, as well as purging food consumed or exercising excessively.
Anorexia Is Affecting Asia
Eating disorders might seem more common in Western countries but it’s slowly making its way to Asia as we are more exposed to more trigger-envy things. In the United States, a recent study shows that 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from eating disorders including anorexia at some point in their lives, with numbers continuing to grow (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen & Hudson, 2011). In Asian countries the numbers of individuals suffering from eating disorders are increasing. Despite the rising number of cases, the lack of awareness and treatment in Asia is worrying.
3 Factors That Could Trigger Anorexia
1. Psychological factors
People with anorexia are afraid of gaining weight because they have the perception that their body image plays a significant role in deciding or directing their achievements in life. Do you have thoughts like these?
“My life is horrible because I’m fat, I just need to be more skinny then things will be alright.”
“I look so big, no wonder my friends stay away from me.”
“I can only be successful if only I were as skinny as…”
These thoughts not only makes you feel guilt but it triggers unhealthy behaviours such as not eating and over-exercising to keep your weight as low as possible.
2. Environmental factors
Maybe puberty, culture, society, stress and life events are the causes of anorexia? Remember how much your body changed during puberty? Add that to the hormonal changes, self-esteem issues, anxiety and stress, it’s no wonder we’re so self-conscious about our physical appearance.
And we are often exposed to the idea that being thin is beautiful. Celebrities are often harshly criticized for their slight imperfections so it sort of creates an almost impossible ideal to strive for for us common folk. Since we can’t afford personal trainers and nutritionists like a celebrities, we might resort to anorexia to achieve our dream bodies.
Whether you’re being bullied at school or when you’re going through a hard time because of your appearance, those things might make you resort to anorexia. With the excuse that having the ‘ideal’ body would help make things better.
3. Biological factors
Sometimes anorexia can be biologically inherited and individuals with a family history of eating disorder are more prone. Recent studies found that inherited biological and genetic factors contribute approximately 50% of the risk for developing an eating disorder. This indicates that individuals with a family member who suffered from anorexia are at higher risk of developing anorexia as compared to those without a family history of eating disorders.
Research also suggests that the changes of brain structure or activity may trigger anorexia, particularly the hypothalamus, the brain structure responsible for regulation eating behaviors. However, the biological factors of eating disorders are not very well understood. This may be due to the majority of studies being conducted only during the acute recovery stages of an eating disorder. At this time, there are physiological changes occurring in the person as a result of their eating disorder behaviors which can affect the findings of the studies.
Is Anorexia life-threatening?
It can be life-threatening because individuals suffering from anorexia may also develop secondary depression, which puts them at high risk for suicide. Or, they may suffer from malnutrition or other physical dysfunctions such as organ failure, poor immune system and other major medical conditions.
Should anorexia be treated medically or psychologically?
The answer is both. Medical treatment and psychotherapy are vital steps in treating individuals with anorexia. Psychotherapy helps individuals overcome the cognitive distortions, as well as to manage behaviours to improve eating habits and manage weight loss.
Meanwhile, medical treatments are used to manage vital signs, hydration level, electrolytes, and provide treatments such as the use of tube feedings in severe cases. Medication is also used to treat associated psychological problems such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as well as anxiety.
As a family or friend, how can I help?
Understand what anorexia is. The lack of awareness of anorexia could cause people to overlook the signs and symptoms of it. Here are some warning signs of anorexia:
- Dramatic weight loss
- Refusal to eat certain foods that can cause weight gain
- Frequent comments about feeling “fat”, anxiety about body image
- Excessive exercise.
People with anorexia need help and support from people around them. If you don’t know how to comfort them then being there is good enough. As family or friends, encouraging them to seek professional help is often the best thing you can get them to do. It may be challenging to convince them to do it, but it’s better than having our loved ones suffer alone.
Seek help and advice from experts. People with anorexia may stop themselves from seeking help due to fear, avoidance, anxiety or any other factors. Anorexia is no longer only a mental health condition when it’s severely affecting your physical health.
Sources: Wade, T. D., Keski-Rahkonen A., & Hudson J. (2011). Epidemiology of eating disorders. In M. Tsuang and M. Tohen (Eds.), Textbook in Psychiatric Epidemiology (3rd ed.) (pp. 343-360). New York: Wiley.
Written by: Sping Lim
Edited by: Healthworks