People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of putting on weight. The condition can develop when a person focuses on controlling food intake and body shape as a way of coping with painful feelings.

Anorexia Nervosa

What is anorexia nervosa?

People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of putting on weight. The condition can develop when a person focuses on controlling food intake and body shape as a way of coping with painful feelings.

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa

The clearest sign of anorexia is severe weight loss. Sufferers weigh at least 15 per cent less than is usual for their age and height. The condition is more obvious but rarer than bulimia nervosa. People can fluctuate between the two conditions. Most anorexia sufferers are girls and young women, although men can be affected and even children as young as seven or eight.

People with anorexia restrict the amount they eat and drink not because they are not hungry, but because they cannot allow themselves to satisfy their appetites. They have mixed feelings about "giving up" their illness because their eating habits have become a way of coping with their emotional problems.

The causes of anorexia nervosa are varied. Some people are more vulnerable due to their genetic make-up or personalities. People with low self-esteem, anxiety or depression may focus on avoiding food to cope with stress or pressure. Traumatic events such as the death of a friend or relative, sexual abuse or divorce can trigger the illness.

Treatment for anorexia nervosa

The first step is to see a doctor, but it can be hard for people with anorexia to accept that they need help—and they must want to get better before any good can result. Friends and family should try to build a relationship of trust with sufferers without forcing them to get help. The focus should be on emotions rather than on food or weight. It may be useful to suggest that individuals get help to deal with the feelings at the root of the anorexia, rather than the anorexia itself.

A doctor can refer someone with anorexia to a specialist in eating disorders. Counselling, psychotherapy or family therapy may address underlying emotional problems, or a psychologist may provide cognitive behaviour therapy. When a person is dangerously underweight, the doctor may advise a spell in a hospital or clinic. Music, dance, drama or art therapy may benefit those who find it hard to express themselves in words. Aromatherapy, massage and reflexology can help people to feel more connected with their body.

Refusing food over a long period can lead to malnutrition and, sometimes, death. Women can find it difficult to become pregnant and may develop osteoporosis (brittle bones). But many of the physical problems associated with anorexia can be reversed once the body is given proper nourishment. Long-term psychological solutions depend on anorexia sufferers coming to understand the origins of their eating distress – and finding other ways of coping with their feelings and with stressful situations.

Adapted from Family Medical Adviser, Reader's Digest

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