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Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions, notorious for being hard to detect and even more difficult to treat.  Part of the difficulty in identifying those struggling with eating disorders stems from the prevalence of misconception and stereotyping.  Common perceptions of eating disorders often oversimplify the illness.  One myth, for example, is that the media alone causes eating disorders.  In addition, many still falsely believe that eating disorders only effect upper-middle class white women.  Yet the truth is that eating disorders do not discriminate, nor is there one, single cause. 

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These conditions are often the result of a ‘perfect storm’, or an interaction between biologic and psychosocial factors that cause one to have a full-blown eating disorder.  The normalization of disordered eating and popularization of a thin ideal are aspects of modern society that can negatively impact one’s self-perception and wellbeing.  These factors serve as triggers, pushing those with a certain genetic predisposition (inborn traits and tendencies) to engage in disordered eating behavior.

While many people go on sporadic or short term diets, a person who is genetically predisposed to develop an eating disorder will take dieting to an extreme.  Anxiety about food and weight become all-consuming.  There is a distinct obsessive nature to eating disorders, and ritualistic behavior is a common sign that something is wrong.  Many of those who suffer with eating disorders feel compelled to cut their food into very small pieces or weigh themselves multiple times a day.  Some may opt to eat alone or in secret, as they feel self-conscious and uncomfortable eating with others.

As we strive to accomplish and achieve, we need to prioritize self-care.

Perfectionism and low self-esteem increase one’s risk for developing an eating disorder.  Certain experiences can make individuals vulnerable, as well.  Eating disorders can occur as a reaction to sexual abuse or trauma.  Harsh experiences can lead to a variety of maladaptive responses and mental illnesses, but eating disorders can be triggered by common experiences, too.  In fact, eating disorders often arise during periods of life transition or rites of passage, and may require no trauma at all.  For example, many people develop eating disorders during their transition from high school to college.  Since many people struggle to adapt to the new college environment, students may adopt unhealthy ways of coping.

An eating disorder is a kind of coping mechanism, for it is a response to a presumably threatening situation.  It often gives individuals a sense of control, allowing them to deal with overwhelming emotions, stress, and insecurity.  Therefore, eating disorders can be thought of as the tip of the iceberg, a compilation of symptoms that represent a host of underlying issues and motives.

While both men and women develop eating disorders, women comprise the majority of sufferers.  The societal pressure of thinness and inclination towards vanity are directed particularly toward women, leaving them at greater risk.  Superficial values have moved us away from focusing on our health, wellbeing, community, and growth, and instead have placed emphasis on looks and body ideal.  The latter list of values allow for a full experience of life, yet they are being downplayed.

Authentic relationships and connection can heal us all, and motivate us to take better care of ourselves and each other.

Eating disorders are like canaries in a coal mine, for they are the early warning sign of a toxic environment.  Modern society is toxic in many ways, encouraging us to push ourselves to our limit.  Our performance at work or at school have become our priority, yet even as we strive to accomplish and achieve, we also need to prioritize self-care.  Many who suffer from eating disorders seek to be accepted by others, but are unable to accept themselves.  Since eating disorders thrive on isolation, those who struggle need a supportive community.  

Friends, family, medical, and mental health professionals comprise the supportive network that can enable one to recover.  While those recovering from an eating disorder are in particular need of support, all human beings deserve social connection.  By reaching out and supporting one another, we can start to reconnect with meaningful values. Authentic relationships and connection can heal us all, and motivate us to take better care of ourselves and each other.

 

 

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