What is Anorexia Nervosa?
The term Anorexia Nervosa was first used in1856 to define an illness characterised by self-starvation. To-date, anorexia is shrouded in myth and it may be helpful to dispel some of the more common beliefs and assumptions surrounding the illness. Anorexia is not rooted in vanity, it is not a ‘teenage phase’ or a lifestyle choice. Moreover, perhaps surprisingly, it is not about food. Anorexia is a serious mental health condition, responsible for more loss of life than any other psychiatric illness.
Anorexia is believed to affect 1 in 100 young people aged between 10 and 20 years old. Although women are 10 times more likely than men to develop anorexia in adolescence, the illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or social group. It is characterised by a terror of gaining weight, a distorted view of one’s body weight/shape and an inability to maintain a minimally normal weight, through refusal of food, vomiting, laxative abuse and/or over exercising.
Current research suggests that the causes for the development of the illness are multifaceted and idiosyncratic, a result of the complex interplay between a person’s personality traits and genetics, alongside socio-cultural and environmental factors. It is frequently co-morbid with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and OCD, and it is associated with feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anger or loneliness.
Common triggers include a simple diet, bullying, pressures in a school or work environment, a fall–out with friends/family or the loss of someone special.
During times of stress or trauma, the pre-occupation with food, weight and appearance can become a welcome distraction from difficult feelings and everyday life pressures. Being able to control ones food or body provides a sense of power and control that serves as a coping mechanism for feeling scared and overwhelmed.
Sufferers, as well as those close to them, are often in denial about the illness and are reluctant to confront it. Furthermore, despite increased efforts to raise awareness, anorexia is still subject to stigma, provoking intense feelings of guilt and shame, contributing to delays in seeking treatment. However research shows a positive correlation between time left untreated and long term complications such as osteoporosis, infertility, gastrointestinal problems and heart conditions. It can take several years to fully recover from anorexia and unfortunately relapses are common. However, the earlier treatment is sought the better the prognosis of making a full and positive recovery.
Treatment involves interpersonal psychotherapy, together with nutrition support and behaviour modification techniques.