According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Anorexia Nervosa plagues approximately .5% of the American female population. Anorexia is much less common among American men, affecting about one tenth of the number of affected women (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
So often, women who suffer from anorexia are overlooked, until they drop significant amounts of weight. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it is much more common for women to exhibit borderline signs of anorexia, and thus, are diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.
How can you tell if someone you love is struggling with anorexia or a less prominent form of anorexia (eating disorder not otherwise specified)? Tell-tale signs of anorexia include: self-starvation, tearing or cutting food into small pieces, sensitivity to cold, worrying about how “fat” she is, loss of menstruation, constantly comparing herself to other women’s shapes and sizes, and focusing a lot of attention on food and weight.
Personally, I continue to fight an ongoing battle with anorexia, a battle that has lasted for 11 years. I also know far too many women, who are beautiful in every way that counts, who suffer with the terrible disorder. Through these experiences, I learned how to help someone I care about who struggles with anorexia.
First, it is important to educate yourself about the nature of anorexia. Gaining an understanding of the core issues that often lead to anorexia is essential in helping someone you love fight the disorder. For instance, many women develop eating disorders due to the experience of trauma, such as rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse, and/or neglect in their lives. Oftentimes, someone will turn to controlling the amount of food one intakes as a way to control one’s feelings regarding their experiences. Many individuals who struggle with an eating disorder are not supported by their family members or friends.
Others develop eating disorders in response to comments made about their weight or appearance. On several occasions, for example, peers and even family members told me that I was fat and/or ugly! Another risk factor for individuals developing eating disorders is if the individual’s family is preoccupied with food and/or weight. While each individual’s experiences leading to anorexia are different, it is important that you understand that anorexia is much more about control and underlying emotions than it is about appearance and weight.
Second, encourage your loved one to talk with someone he or she trusts about how she feels, what has happened in her life, etc. Do not pressure your loved one to talk to you; instead, offer your support by letting the individual know that you are available to listen to her when or if she is ready to talk with you.
Third, encourage your loved one to seek professional help. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists are trained to help individuals with eating disorders; thus, these professionals should be utilized in eating disorder treatment, when possible. Seek counseling yourself if you feel you need some help coping with the situation.
If you are a parent, do not fight with your child who is suffering with anorexia about what she is eating, not eating, how much she weighs, etc. Instead, encourage your child to talk to you about how she feels. It is perfectly reasonable to tell your child that you are concerned that she is not eating enough or that you are concerned that she is getting too thin. However, pushing your child to eat, will only cause more anxiety around food for her.
If you are a parent and you notice your child losing a lot of weight, take him or her to a primary care physician to have the physician monitor the health of your child. If it becomes necessary, consider taking your child to an eating disorder clinic or hospital for inpatient treatment. The hospital will provide a medically safe place for your child to work on the issues behind her eating disorder.
Approximately .5% of American females suffer from anorexia nervosa; chances are you know someone who struggles. If you desire to be supportive of her, In order to support your loved one who struggles with anorexia, educating yourself about the disorder, encouraging her to talk to you, and encouraging her to seek professional help are good first steps in helping your loved one reach recovery.