How Eating Disorders Affect the Mind
The psychological consequences of an eating disorder are complex and difficult to overcome. An eating disorder is often a symptom of a larger problem in a person’s life. The disorder is an unhealthy way for that person to cope with the painful emotions tied to the problem. For this reason, the emotional problems that triggered the eating disorder in the first place can worsen as the disorder takes hold.
An eating disorder can also cause more problems to surface in a person’s life. Eating disorders make it difficult for people to perceive things normally because certain chemical changes take place when the body is deprived of nutrients. As a result, the body relies on adrenaline (a hormone that is normally released during times of stress and fear) instead of food for energy. Adrenaline naturally makes someone excited, which makes it more difficult to deal with painful emotions.
Research has shown that many people suffering from an eating disorder also suffer from other psychological problems. Sometimes the eating disorder causes other problems, and sometimes the problems coexist with the eating disorder. Some of the psychological disorders that can accompany an eating disorder include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety and panic disorders.
In addition to having other psychological disorders, a person with an eating disorder may also engage in destructive behaviours as a result of low self-esteem. Just as an eating disorder is a negative way to cope with emotional problems, other destructive behaviours, such as self-mutilation, drug addiction, and alcoholism, are similar negative coping mechanisms.
Not everyone who has an eating disorder suffers from additional psychological disorders; however, it is very common.
DEPRESSION. Depression is one of the most common psychological problems related to an eating disorder. It is characterized by intense and prolonged feelings of sadness and hopelessness. In its most serious form, depression may lead to suicide. Considering that an eating disorder is often kept a secret, a person who is suffering feels alienated and alone. A person may feel that it is impossible to openly express her feelings. As a result, feelings of depression will worsen the effects of an eating disorder, making it difficult to break the cycle of disordered eating.
OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOUR. Obsessions are constant thoughts that produce anxiety and stress. Compulsions are irrational behaviours that are repeated to reduce anxiety and stress. People with eating disorders are constantly thinking about food, calories, eating, and weight. As a result, they show signs of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. If people with eating disorders also show signs of obsessive-compulsive behaviour with things not related to food, they may be diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Some obsessive-compulsive behaviours practised by eating disorder sufferers include storing large amounts of food, collecting recipes, weighing themselves several times a day, and thinking constantly about the food they feel they should not eat. These obsessive thoughts and rituals worsen when the body is regularly deprived of food. Being in a state of starvation causes people to become so preoccupied with everything they have denied themselves that they think of little else.
FEELINGS OF ANXIETY, GUILT, AND SHAME. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety (fear and worry), guilt, and shame at some time; however, these feelings become more intense with the onset of an eating disorder. Eating disorder sufferers fear that others will discover their illness. There is also a tremendous fear of gaining weight.
As the eating disorder progresses, body image becomes more distorted and the eating disorder becomes all-consuming. Some sufferers are often terrified of letting go of the illness, which causes many to protect their secret eating disorder even more.
Eating disorder sufferers have a strong need to control their environment and will avoid social situations where they may have to be around food in front of other people or where they may have to change their behaviour. The anxiety that results causes people with eating disorders to be inflexible and rigid with their emotions.
SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
- Extreme mood swings
- Inability to experience pleasure in anything
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Constant fatigue (exhaustion)
- Insomnia (sleeplessness) or sleeping too much
- Loss of appetite or compulsive eating
- Inability to concentrate or make decisions
- Poor memory
- Unexplained headaches, backaches, or stomachaches