After a decade of working with individuals and families with eating disorders (including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder), it is clear just how difficult they can be to treat and they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Despite increased awareness and research, eating disorders continue to be misunderstood with many myths around their nature and treatment. This often makes it harder for individuals with eating disorders to get the help they desperately need in order to fully recover.
Written by a fully recovered eating disorder psychologist this article shares with you 7 truths about eating disorders to help you on your eating disorder recovery journey.
Truth 1. Many people with eating disorders look healthy in appearance but are extremely ill.
Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and just because someone appears a ‘normal’ weight does not mean they won’t be struggling.
There is a common myth that you can tell whether someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. This is because society and the media often portray a person with an eating disorder who is extremely thin and frail.
However, the truth is that eating disorders present in many diverse ways and among individuals of varying sizes so the illness may not be obvious. This can have a huge impact on individuals feeling like they don’t deserve to seek help because they don’t ‘look sick enough’.
As a result, 9/10 individuals with an eating disorder will not seek help.
Truth 2. Families are not to blame and can be the patients’ and providers’ best allies in treatment.
Research has shown that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction between biological, psychological and social factors, not by families. Biological factors include genetic predisposition, family history, temperament, and dieting history. Psychological factors include low self-esteem, poor relationship with self, feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism, loneliness and other mental health illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Social factors include cultural norms that overvalue appearance, body dissatisfaction, weight stigma or bullying.
It has been shown that eating disorder recovery often happens faster when the individual has a united support system around them e.g. family, friends and partners. However, it is important that the support system is educated and on-board for real progress to occur.
Truth 3. An eating disorder diagnosis can disrupt both personal and family functioning
Eating disorders can have a significant impact not just on the individual’s eating habits and weight, but on all aspects of life. This includes mental and physical health, school, work, relationships, social life, ambition and drive for life. They can also increase stress on the entire family. For example, mealtimes often become tense, arguments increase and parents often engage in self and mutual blame.
Truth 4. Eating disorders are not choices, but serious biologically influenced conditions
Eating disorders are often seen as ‘illnesses of choice’ or ‘vanity’, however their origins are often far more complex. Working as an eating disorder psychologist, my clients never wanted to have an eating disorder and they are not a choice. Eating disorders develop over time and progress slowly as a result of many different factors which impact the brain and body leading to further disturbances.
Truth 5. Eating disorders can affect anyone
In the past eating disorders were believed to only impact affluent white females. However, it is now seen that eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes and weights, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses. This continues to prevent many individuals who do not meet the old stereotype from recognising and believing they need to seek help.
Truth 6. Eating disorders carry an increased risk for both suicide and medical complications.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness because they can affect every organ system in the body. This includes the cardiovascular (e.g. heart failure), gastrointestinal (e.g. digestive issues), neurological (e.g. sleep, fainting, dizziness) and endocrine systems (e.g. lack of menstruation). The body is generally resilient at coping with the stress of eating disordered behaviors, and laboratory tests can generally appear perfect even if someone is at high risk. In addition, suicide is a common cause of death for a person struggling with an eating disorder.
Truth 7. Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
With earlier detection, personalized treatment, finding the right eating disorder psychologist who you trust and a reliable support system, full recovery is possible. There is no time limit on your recovery journey and it is important to go at a pace that best suits you.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder and it is the right time to speak with an eating disorder psychologist in Sydney please get in contact with fully recovered eating disorder psychologist Hannah Myall, who has also fully recovered from an eating disorder and has since spent the last decade helping individuals and families work towards eating disorder recovery.