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Why Do People Have Eating Disorders?

February 23rd – March 1st is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

The most common eating disorders are Bulimia, Anorexia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. We have a strong social awareness that these conditions are prevalent and very little understanding as to why. We seem to view eating disorders as simply misguided pursuits of our cultural value of thinness. There is no question that media depictions of beauty undermine and distort our perceptions of self and others, yet there are a myriad of other contributing factors.

My experience clinically has consistently shown that eating disorders are similar to addiction to alcohol and drugs in that they generally mask a much deeper pain, involve obsessive thinking, false beliefs, and compulsive behavior. They tend to be hidden out of shame and thus perpetuated. Recovery from these conditions requires personal, peer, and professional support.

We need to reduce stigma associated with eating disorders in order to facilitate and support recovery efforts. The more we understand, the more we’re able to express concern appropriately and advocate solutions that are beneficial.  Encouraging a person who lives with anorexia to eat is like saying to an alcoholic, “Stop drinking!” If that’s all there was to it, we wouldn’t have millions of folks suffering.

I value abstinence from every form of self destruction and know it to be necessary for attaining stability and health.  I also find that until we get to the root of things that people often relapse or trade one form of self destruction for another.  Until we come to a place where we can achieve healthy release and fill the emotional emptiness with healthy things, we continue to do what we do regardless of the costs.

I find that for many, purging is strongly associated with everything we want to let go of (painful memories and raw emotion) but cannot. Purging, especially through vomiting gives a sense of instantaneous relief. It is a physiological release that provides a sense of relief from emotional pressure and stress.

Feeling a sense of control in one’s life is closely associated with having a sense of safety and well being. I’ve learned that when abusive others take away all other forms of control, that what goes in and out of a person’s body is remarkably difficult (if not impossible) to control.

The importance of expressing concern for our loved ones who may live with an eating disorder cannot be overstated. Research has shown that Anorexia Nervosa has a higher mortality rate than any other form of mental illness. Quite often folks tell me they are at a loss as to how to approach their friends or family on such a delicate subject.

I always recommend keeping it simple. Say to them, “I have no idea how to say this and I am afraid of offending you, but I am concerned for your health. Is there something I can do to help?

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