by Marissa Mangual, LPC
February 24 through March 1 marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week. According to the Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) and National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders affect about 30 million people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and genders in the US. It is considered to have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with at least one person dying every 62 minutes from an eating disorder. On average, about 50% of those diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder have co-morbid mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and/or substance use disorders. It is also not uncommon for one who has experienced trauma/PTSD to develop an eating disorder as well. Even for someone who has personally struggled with eating disorders for about 12 years now, in addition to treating many clients who have struggled with such disorders as well, the statistics remain shocking to me. Eating disorders have an incredible impact on an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Eating disorders are incredibly complex: and researches are still studying the causes and developments of such disorders. Body image, weight, shape, and relationships with food are all common factors, however, they are also attempts to cope with, and gain control over, overpowering and painful emotions. But like any other mental health disorder, no one person is the same despite experiencing similar symptoms. Identifying what emotions and triggers drive the behaviors are key, in addition to developing helpful tools to learn to manage the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that perpetuate the cycle. This is an ongoing process that is not easy by any means, but it IS possible. The hardest piece about it is that we have to eat every day in order to fuel our bodies with the nutrients that it needs. It may feel like an impossible and scary feat, but we are more capable of recovery than we give ourselves credit.
For someone who has struggled with eating disorders since college, asking for help was the scariest, and best, thing I ever did for myself. Honestly, I was unaware that I had a problem all of those years. In my personal and professional experience, I notice how significant cognitive distortions can alter the way one views eating patterns, behaviors, and body image. One may start to feel incredibly guilty about what they eat, when they eat, how many calories they are consuming, and what they are putting into their body. A distinguishing feature of an eating disorder is the obsession and preoccupation with food throughout the day: followed by extreme guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, and sadness. These thoughts intensify the more malnourished our bodies become.
In addition, having an eating disorder can be easy to hide, and the behaviors can be rather secretive. A common misconception is that someone with an eating disorder has a ‘frail, sickly’ body, or an ‘overweight, heavy body’. Remember, eating disorders can affect ALL bodies and sizes. Being on one side of the scale, or the other, also does not mean someone has an eating disorder. There can be numerous factors that impact size and weight.
So, going back to asking for help, I often ask my clients, “What is the threat? What are your fears? What gets in the way of seeking help for ourselves?” Exploring the barriers that get in the way are incredibly important, and not just for one struggling with an eating disorder. Some things that get in the way are the stigmas associated with mental health, as well as feelings of shame, weakness, and fear of the unknown. It is a vulnerable experience to put yourself in the hands of a treatment team and allow yourself to travel down an unfamiliar path. I believe this is the most courageous act one can do for themselves. Taking a step to heal yourself and ask for help is brave and empowering. This does not mean you are not brave or capable if you are not ready. Perhaps I can suggest keeping an open mind to the idea of healing, and the possibility of receiving help. You are not alone. Schedule a consultation with me at Mindful and Multicultural Counseling to learn more about ways to heal.