Learn more about the signs, causes and treatment of anorexia nervosa
Anorexia is a serious eating disorder that is associated with an intense fear of food and weight gain. Individuals become obsessed with food and heavily restrict their intake, starve or exercise compulsively. While anorexia revolves around food and weight, it rarely has anything to do with those things. Typically, people with anorexia use food and other unhealthy behaviors, such as exercising excessively, to cope with painful emotions.
There’s a range of reasons why a person develops anorexia, and a range of symptoms — from mild to severe. Anorexia can be fatal. In fact, it has one of the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. But effective treatments are available, and if you’re struggling with anorexia, recovery is possible. The key is to work hard and be honest with your treatment team.
Signs & Symptoms
There are two types of anorexia: restricting type, where people fast, drastically restrict their diet and over-exercise; and purging type, where people vomit or use laxative and diuretics. Symptoms include:
• Refusing to eat
• Not wanting to eat in front of others
• Skipping meals
• Cutting out major food groups, and eating only certain foods that the person views as “safe”
• Purging by vomiting or taking laxatives or diuretics
• Cooking for others but not eating the food
• Feeling sad, anxious or irritable
• Feeling cold all the time
• Tremendous weight loss
• Fine, soft hair on the body called lanugo
• Thinning hair or hair loss
• Amenorrhea (when a woman’s menstrual cycle stops)
• Irregular heartbeat
Many factors combine to cause anorexia. Individuals with close family members with anorexia are at greater risk for anorexia. Several chromosomes have been linked to anorexia. Also, some traits, including perfectionism, low self-esteem and anxiety, are associated with anorexia. Our society’s emphasis on thinness plays a contributing role, as does peer pressure, being involved in weight- or appearance-based activities (such as dancing, gymnastics, wrestling) and events that trigger emotional distress.
There’s a common myth that anorexia can be fixed if the person just starts eating; however, since there’s so much more to anorexia than food, this isn’t the answer. Also, many sufferers think of the behaviors associated with anorexias as a useful way to cope. Remember that anorexia is an illness that creates disordered thoughts, and treatment helps with this.
The first focus of treatment is restoring a healthy weight with proper nutrition. Depending on the severity of anorexia and the complications, some people may require emergency hospitalization. If individuals refuse to eat or are badly malnourished, they may require some time in the hospital.
There are also eating disorder treatment facilities that offer outpatient — day programs that you attend — and inpatient — you sleep there — options. There, individuals usually see a team of professionals and participate in individual and group therapy, nutrition education and other treatment activities.
Others might see a therapist weekly. Individual therapy helps sufferers adopt healthy ways of coping, reduce anxiety and change negative thoughts and behaviors. In family-based therapy, families work together to resolve conflicts and help the sufferer maintain healthy behaviors. Group therapy with a professional therapist can also help, and gives people the opportunity to connect with others.
If you think you or someone you know is struggling with anorexia, it’s important to speak up and get help. Click here to find help on your campus.