Anorexia: Psychiatric Illness Or Not

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Anorexia Nervosa is a serious psychiatric illness that deeply affects the lives of both the victim and the victim’s close friends and family in that those afflicted with anorexia have an overwhelming desire to remain thin where they obsess over calories, the fat content of meals, and undergo an extreme exercise to maintain caloric deficits. Anorexia is an eating disorder where patients suffer extreme fear of being overweight and seek solace by starving themselves to reach the skinny figure they desire. In this paper, I will attempt to explain the nature of patients with anorexia, how one develops anorexia, and how anorexia can be treated in a clinical setting.

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Anorexia Nervosa, more commonly known as anorexia, is an eating disorder that predominantly affects women, but men can also fall victim. Athletes and performers in industries where there is a perceived benefit to being thin are also at a higher risk of developing anorexia. Besides the potential death of the patient, there are many ways anorexia can affect the physical health of the patient, including but not limited to bradycardia, heart failure, depression, osteoporosis, irregular periods in women, low testosterone in men, kidney failure, fainting, and abnormal hair growth over the entire body. Due to the nature of the disease, anorexia is categorized as a mental disorder as well. Those afflicted by it often withdraw from social activities, suffer incredible insecurities, and very frequently suffer from some form of depression. Anorexic patients will often attempt to hide their disorders in very creative ways such as manipulating how they move food around on a plate to simulate eating, and by wearing more layers of clothes on their body to appear bigger and more nourished than they are. Contrary to what most people would believe, anorexics are not revolted or repelled by food; they really love eating. These thoughts completely dominate their mind and this leads to obsessive eating rituals involving counting bites, counting calories, and removing entire food groups such as carbohydrates and fats from their diets. Anorexics are also known for excessive eating and purging, sharing many common characteristics with patients who suffer from bulimia. Starving yourself to lose weight is not sustainable as a diet so many anorexic patients will break their diet and then consume incredible quantities of food. After they have finished feeding, there is often an intense feeling of guilt and shame which leads them to purge their body of the food they consumed. This includes self-induced vomiting and abusing laxatives to attempt to remove as much of the food as possible before the body absorbs it in the form of calories, a characteristic that is very similar to those suffering from bulimia, where there is a repetitive cycle of binging and purging. In anorexic patients, these events are far less frequent, and the main characteristics include starvation and excessive exercise.

Anorexia is a psychological disorder and many of those affected equate their thinness with their own self-worth. The goal for anorexics is to become as thin as possible to develop confidence and become happier with themselves. For a certain person to begin thinking this way, many possible underlying factors could influence them. There are no clear-cut reasons for why people develop anorexia, but many professionals in the field believe that this attempt to become thin is part of an unconscious attempt to deal with unresolved conflicts and painful childhood experiences. Eating disorders also run in families, and if the mother or sibling suffers from an eating disorder, then it is much more likely that an eating disorder could arise as well. The typical sufferer of anorexia is a perfectionist/overachiever who does very well in school and is very involved with the community. This kind of person does everything right, but they believe their life will be better if they were just a little bit thinner. Of course, a person could often be thinner than they are, and this soon leads to a disorder where one is never satisfied with how they look. Environmental factors also play a role in anorexia, especially among western women. Through media portrayals of success and worth, models are almost always equated with being thin and through much of history, this idea has cemented itself in western culture. Many women feel uncomfortable with themselves after comparing themselves to these successful people who are much skinnier than they are. In the mind of a perfectionist, it makes sense for their next step to be to try and reach this seemingly attainable goal. Stressful life events also have been shown to lead to anorexic behavior. Most broadly, transitionary times in people’s lives are areas where anorexia most often appears, like the death of a family member, a relationship breakup, attending a new school, or starting a new job. Overall, there are many causes for anorexia, but negative stress appears to be a factor that influences almost all cases.

To treat a physical and psychological disease like anorexia, there is most generally a team approach comprised of dietitians, doctors, and mental health professionals. In many cases where the patient is in a critical state, the patient will be hospitalized and remain under constant supervision to ensure that they eat. The vital signs for anorexic patients must be constantly monitored to ensure that they are receiving adequate levels of electrolytes and water. In severe cases, feeding tubes may have to be implemented to make sure that the patient is eating. The first goal when treating anorexia nervosa is to bring the patient up to a healthy weight. In conjunction with bringing the patient to a healthy weight, it is also critical for the patient to be well-informed on proper nutrition and how to live a healthy life. After the patient is brought to a healthy weight, there must be levels of therapy to attempt to correct the psychological impacts of the disease. For teenagers, the most beneficial method of therapy is family-based therapy which involves the patient’s family in caring for and nurturing their child back to health. For adults, there is also individual cognitive therapy where the goal is to normalize proper eating patterns so that the patient can return to normal. Medication is not often used in treating anorexia, but for underlying issues like depression, it has been found that treating depression will assist with treating anorexia. The treatment for anorexia is simple compared to many other disorders, but the hardest part of the process is that many of the patients will refuse treatment and do not believe that anything is wrong with their behavior. It takes a fair amount of persuasion and support from friends and family to change the behavior of an anorexic patient. It is possible to recover from anorexia nervosa, but previous sufferers have high chances of relapsing in the future after times of severe stress. It is suggested that during times of severe stress, one should check in with a mental health professional to decrease the chances of relapsing.

After exploring the psychological disease of anorexia nervosa, one can gain insight into the life of a person suffering from the disease. It is also important to understand the warning signs of potential anorexics because it is much easier to prevent a disease from happening than to treat it after it has come to fruition. With close friends and family members, it is always a good idea to stress that personality is more important than looks and that perfection does not exist. People should always strive to be their best, but in some cases, the pursuit of perfection can be deadly.    

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