This topic deals with three dysfunctional behaviors: compulsive over-eating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa. In the United States over a million people suffer from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. It affects 1 in 10 young women and 1 in 100 young men; these two disorders are ten times more common in women than in men.
Some eating abnormalities are common among young people. They may have grown up with, or drifted into, poor nutritional habits. They may be following some current food fads to an extreme. Or they may be over-eating to relieve stress. People in their twenties or thirties sometimes look back and remember tendencies toward anorexia or bulimia they passed through without serious trouble. They represent a second class of those dealing with food in an unhealthy way. It is when eating or abstaining from food becomes an obsession, when there is a loss of personal control, when it begins to alienate one from self or others, when there is a beginning of physical harm and emotional guilt or anxiety, that we talk about real eating disorders.
Experts gathering at a conference on obesity (December, 1998) were told that it is becoming a problem worldwide, but America still leads with the highest percentage of overweight people-affecting one-third of the entire adult population. Obesity increased by 30 percent between 1980 and 1990. It is responsible for 300,000 preventable (U.S.) deaths per year. Again, at this conference, speakers pointed out the dangers of obesity, the lack of governmental concern, and how exercise, first of all, and then a proper diet, can control the condition.
Reseachers at Cambridge University, England, are among those finding genetic cause for obesity. It is a complex story, but certain brains may not be warned to stop storing fat and therefore to stop eating. This confirms the notion that it is more difficult for some to control their weight than for others.
Some see overeating and obesity stemming from desires for compensation and protection and only secondarily concerned with punishment. Anorexia and bulimia, on the other hand, they see as stemming from desires for control and punishment and only secondarily concerned with protection.
What overeating, anorexia, and bulimia have in common are the following:
All are compulsive behaviors leading to addiction.
All are compensatory behaviors covering unmet needs.
All are best corrected by a four-fold treatment:
Physical. Medical check-up and counseling; may require hospitalization.
Behavior. Habits and lifestyle incentives and supports.
Psychotherapeutic. Individual and group therapy to reduce internal conflict and increase self-nurture.
Spiritual. Healing of memories and acceptance of spiritual nurture.
How overeating, anorexia, and bulimia differ:
Overeating is a problem of both sexes and all ages, whereas 90 percent of anorexics are female. Anorexia usually appears earlier than bulimia, in the teens or twenties.
Overeating may more often be a moderate condition and not severely self-destructive. Anorexia and bulimia are more severe leading to serious physical injury.
Eating disorders refers to extreme expressions of food and weight issues. They usually stem from a combination of cultural and psychological problems. The culture’s emphasis on “thinness” and perfect bodily shape and appearance contributes to the complexity and difficulty of these dysfunctional behaviors. On the other hand, there are deep feelings of inadequacy, sometimes depression, brought on by psychological or inter-personal failures. Some anorexics and overweight women may have been sexually abused as children, but there are many different patterns leading to these conditions.
A young anorexic may be a perfectionist with the following symptoms:
Extreme concern with body weight and shape, a distorted body image.
May have a compulsion to exercise.
Fear of weight gain.
Refusal to maintain weight.
In females, a loss of menstrual periods.
Many of those afflicted with eating disorders have felt a loss of control over their lives. This one small and tightly focused area of their lives becomes a place they find complete control and some sense of empowerment. Extreme anorexics may be determined, not only to become thin, but to extinguish life itself. Extraordinary stories of therapies tell of those who have been rescued from self destruction. We must remember that others have died.
Researchers in Oxford, England studied the differences between female and male anorexics. They found many similarities, but the men tended to be short and over-weight before they stopped eating, and were more likely to be overactive as well as anorexic. These researchers thought that men might be less likely to become anorexic because they are generally less concerned about body shape and less subject to mood disorders.
Bulimics may exhibit the following symptoms:
Trying different and frequent diets.
Having extreme concern for body weight and shape.
Feeling out of control during eating binges.
Purging by vomiting (or use of a laxative) after eating binges.
Repeating incidents of bingeing and purging.
It is important to stress that eating disorders:
Are serious emotional problems.
Can respond to comprehensive treatment.
Those suffering from eating disorders come to realize a numbness of feeling. One website (www.geocities.com/HotSprings/5704/feelings.htm) gives a long list of adjectives helpful in discovering these emotions: “Abandoned, Absent-minded, Adamant, Agitated, Ambivalent, Angry, Anxious…” and so on through the alphabet. As feelings are owned, there is a gradual return of power and control over one’s life.
A very insightful and caring therapist and an encouraging support group are vital aspects in recovery.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What is your experience with eating disorders? Have you ever struggled with this yourself?
What is your feeling about those who exhibit symptoms of eating disorder? Why do you feel or others feel negatively toward those who are overweight or destroying themselves with food-abuse?
What is most helpful to you in this article? What would you add or how would you write it differently?
Teenagers struggling with eating disorders, their parents, friends and other concerned adults may have quite different reactions to this article.
Serious problems such as these need to be referred to professionals.
Teenagers are unusually self-conscious about their bodies and the impressions they make on their peers. Youth leaders need to be extremely sensitive to the incredibly strong feelings of hurt, fear, and anger surrounding these conditions.
The unmet needs of adolescents-especially those resulting from parental deprivation or overcontrol-set an important agenda for schools and youth work.
Schools and youth programs should include curricula that prevent and remedy common addictions in our society while building strong self-image and growth patterns.