What is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa, commonly referred to simply as anorexia, is a type of eating disorder. More importantly, it is also a psychological disorder. Anorexia is a condition that goes beyond dieting. A person with anorexia initially begins dieting to lose weight. Over time, the weight loss becomes a sign of mastery and control. The drive to become thinner is actually secondary to concerns about control and/or fears relating to one’s body. The individual continues the endless cycle of restrictive eating, often accompanied by other behaviors such as excessive exercising or the overuse of diuretics, laxatives, and/or enemas in order to reduce body weight, often to a point close to starvation in order to feel a sense of control over the body. This cycle becomes an obsession and in this way, is similar to any type of addiction.
Causes of Anorexia
In many societies, being extremely thin is the standard of beauty for women and represents success, happiness and self-control. Women are bombarded with messages from the media that they must diet to meet this standard. However, this idealized ultra-thin body shape is almost impossible for most women to achieve since it does not fit with the biological and inherited factors that determine natural body weight. This conflict leaves most women very dissatisfied with their body weight and shape.
More recently, pressure has also increased on men to be lean and muscular.
Psychological characteristics that can make a person more likely to develop anorexia nervosa include:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of ineffectiveness
- Poor body image
- Difficulty expressing feelings
- Rigid thinking patterns
- Need for control
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Avoidance of conflict with others
- Need to feel special or unique
People with anorexia nervosa often appear emotionally driven not only toward weight loss, but also in other areas of their life, such as schoolwork, physical fitness, or career. It has also been suggested that in some cases of anorexia nervosa, self-starvation may be a way to avoid the sexual and social demands associated with adolescence.
Some family styles may contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Families of people with the disorder are more likely to be:
- Suffocating in their closeness
In these cases, anorexia nervosa develops as a struggle for independence and individuality. It is likely to surface in adolescence when new demands for independence occur.
Other characteristics of families that may increase the chance of developing anorexia nervosa are:
- Overvaluing appearance and thinness
- Criticizing a child’s weight or shape
Anorexia nervosa occurs eight times more often in people who have relatives with the disorder. However, experts do not know exactly what the inherited factor may be. In addition, anorexia nervosa occurs more often in families with a history of depression or alcohol abuse.
Life transitions can often trigger anorexia nervosa in someone who is already vulnerable because of the factors described above. Examples include:
- Beginning of adolescence
- Beginning or failing in school or at work
- Breakup of a relationship
- Death of a loved one
Dieting and losing weight can also set off anorexia nervosa.
Once anorexia nervosa has developed, several factors can perpetuate the disorder. These factors include:
- Symptoms of starvation
- Other people’s reactions to the weight loss
- Emotional needs filled by feelings of self-control, virtue, and power from controlling one’s weight.