This week is eating disorder’s awareness week. In a culture that overvalues appearance, it is unsurprising that individuals are increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies and can go to extremes to achieve their body ‘ideal’. It is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK suffer with an eating disorder. A common misconception is that eating disorders are associated with young women, but increasing amounts of men and older women suffer in silence too.
The term ‘Eating Disorder’ covers a range of eating related distress and body image concerns that don’t always fit neatly into a category, but make the individual feel as if food and weight is ruling their life. It can be debilitating, associated with feelings of shame, depression and anxiety. It can affect everything from work through to hobbies and relationships. Problematic behaviours can include attempts to restrict eating, binging, secret-eating and compensating for over-eating by excessive exercise, vomiting or using laxatives.
Another unhelpful misconception is the simplistic algorithm: healthy diet + exercise = healthy weight. Psychological therapy looks beyond diet and exercise: to understand early experiences that may have led people to form damaging relationships with themselves, food and their own body; to consider the role of family and significant others who may be playing a part; to provide a non-judgemental listening space as well as tools to help you develop a healthier state of mind.
Therapy helps you to develop understanding of your particular difficulties and find a way to resolve them in a way that is right for you. This could be focusing in detail on eating and weight, or barely talking of food at all. Shamima* grew up in a high achieving family; expectations were set and nothing ever seemed good enough. Shamima was helped to identify key triggers to her problematic eating patterns, where she realised she was imposing the same unreachable standards on her eating and weight: ‘succeeding’ with a diet resulted in temporary feelings of control and self-righteousness, yet this would soon come crashing down the moment she was tempted into eating a ‘bad’ food (“I’ve failed”). She learnt techniques to counter these ‘all or nothing’ only-good-or-bad ways of thinking, that allowed for a greater range of foods in her diet, as well as methods to better tune into her body and its hunger and satiety cues. Ultimately this resulted in a more satisfying and healthy relationship with both food and her body. For Paige, her problematic eating behaviours subsided only once she had spoken of her uncle’s abuse for the first time and had her experiences heard and validated by another. She learnt that younger Paige wasn’t to blame and she began to show more kindness and understanding towards herself. We didn’t need to directly address food or weight at all: she had already started to nourish herself.
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*Names and details have been changed