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What is Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a disease that can be defined as self-starvation resulting in a loss of body fat 15% below normal. Anorexia is a Greek word that means “loss of appetite.” This may be misleading, however, because only in the late stages of the disease do people actually lose their appetite. Anorexia usually strikes females who come from upper-middle-class and upper-class homes; financial achievement and social position are often high. Anorexics have an intense fear of gaining weight, even though they are underweight. Losing weight can make the fear of gaining worse.

Anorexia is a serious eating disorder that is caused by an individual’s overpowering and distorted need to control. It is one which has numerous physical and psychological effects and no one true cure.

There are three major causes of anorexia: a need for greater sexual freedom, yearning for power and self-control and the victim’s desire to fulfill society’s demand to be thin.

Greater sexual freedom is a factor is the considerable frequency of anorexia. Females are expected to begin dating at a much earlier age than before. A girl of fourteen or fifteen who has not had a date may begin to feel as if something is wrong with her. Noted psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said anorexia to be “a melancholia where sexuality is underdeveloped.” Eating or not eating stood as a substitute for basic sexual drives or their absence. The anorexic did not eat because food and sex revolted her. Because of prior associations, food had a symbolic significance which mad it repulsive.

A second cause of anorexia is a yearning for power and self-control. By controlling their eating, anorexics feel that there is a core to their personality and that they are in touch with their feelings. In spite of the weakness associated with such a serve weight loss, they will drive themselves to unbelievable feats to demonstrate that they live be the ideal of “mind over body.” Whatever else is going on in the anorexic’s life, the one thing that she feels she can control is food.

The most significant cause of anorexia is society’s demand to be thin. The pressure society puts on people, especially women, to be thin drives some to starve themselves. A mother or older sister may communicate through her behavior or admonitions the urgency to stay slim. Magazines and movies carry the same message, but most persistent is television, drumming it into a young, susceptible mind that one can only be desired and respected when slender.

The many effects of anorexia can be grouped into two categories: physical and psychological.

Physical risks and complications caused by anorexia include amenorrhea, anemia, dental decay and discoloration, a depressed immune system, dry skin, high cholesterol, kidney damage, liver damage, low body temperature and yellow skin.

Amenorrhea is due to decreased estrogen production, which causes females to cease ovulation and menstruation. Anemia is a blood disorder characterized by either a decrease in the number of red cells, or a reduction in hemoglobin. The body’s ability to carry oxygen from the lungs to its tissues is reduced, often caused by an iron deficiency. Kidney damage is usually due to dehydration, and it may be worsened by the use of diuretics.

Starvation has a disorganizing effect on general functioning and psychological reactions. Chronic malnutrition is accompanied by biochemical changes which influence thinking, feeling and behavior to an enormous degree. There is harsh confusion in the way the anorexic sees herself.

Behavioral changes seen in starvation and eating disorders include a preoccupation with food, impaired concentration, indecisiveness, mood swings, depression and social isolation. These consequences make it difficult to clearly assess what is going on, therefore enabling the eating disorder to thrive.

Although there is no cure for anorexia, there are ways to treat and prevent it. Therapy is used to treat anorexia, but education is an essential way to prevent it.

The longer abnormal eating behaviors persist, the more difficult it is to overcome. Anyone suffering from anorexia should seriously consider seeking professional help. Individual therapy will encourage the sufferer to come to terms with her problem. She can begin to explore the issues that led her down this devastating path.

When family problems are a cause of the disorder, it can be very helpful for the individual to go through family therapy. Family therapy has provided a 90% improvement rate for the victims of anorexia. Family therapy is a safe place where the function of the eating disorder within the family can be investigated, communication skills can be learned or improved and relationships begin to heal and strengthen.

Group therapy allows for sharing thoughts, feelings and fears with others who understand. It is a place where members can discuss anything from food behaviors and ways to change them to the underlying issues of what caused the disorder. Group members can offer unique encouragement, support and empathy to one another, which greatly enhances the recovery process.

To reduce the risk of anorexia, there should be intense instruction on the harmful effects of unhealthy weight regulation. Parents and other influential adults should help their children develop skills to cope with the pressure society puts on weight.

References

Bruch, Hilde. Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 1978.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa As a Modern

Disease. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Hall, Lindsey and Monica Ostroff. Anorexia Nervosa: A Guide to Recovery. Carlsbad, CA:

Gurze Books, 1998.

Immell, Myra H., Ed. Eating Disorders. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1999.