If you’ve been struggling with an eating disorder, maybe it’s time to get help. Eating disorders seriously affect your life. They risk your health, preoccupy you with your eating behaviors, and leave you with untreated psychological problems. These problems are the reasons for developing an eating disorder in the first place.
Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening. If you tell yourself it’s just a “fad” or a “phase,” it’s not. And, if you keep telling yourself it’s not a big deal, you risk your medical and psychological health.
You can get help. And, you don’t have to continue to live in this vicious cycle. Yes, it’s scary to think about stopping these eating behaviors. They’re serving you with an unconscious psychological purpose. And, this can be sensitively understood.
But, you don’t want to risk your life, do you? What you need is the right kind of psychological help, along with medical supervision. Eating disorders are complicated and they require expert treatment.
Here is a detailed explanation of 3 ways eating disorders affect your life. And, what to look for in finding help. Getting the right kind of help for working out the underlying reasons for your eating disorder is crucial. That way, you can get free.
Risking Your Health
Health risks of eating disorders can be quite serious. Here are things to know:
Health Consequences Of Anorexia
In anorexia’s cycle of self-starvation, your body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. Because of this, it’s forced to slow down to conserve energy, resulting in serious medical consequences. These are:
- Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure.
The heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as your heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
- Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones.
- Muscle loss and weakness.
- Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure.
- Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness.
- Dry hair and skin; hair loss is common.
- Growth of a downy layer of hair called lanugo all over the body, to keep you warm.
Health Risks of Bulimia
Your recurrent binge-and-purge cycles can lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances in your body that affect the heart and other major organs. Some of the health problems resulting from bulimia include:
- Electrolyte imbalances.
This can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. Electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium, sodium and chloride because of your purging behaviors.
- Potential for gastric rupture during periods of binging.
- Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting.
- Tooth decay and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting.
- Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation as a result of laxative abuse.
- Peptic ulcers and pancreatitis.
Binge Eating Health Risks
Binge eating often results in many of the same health risks associated with clinical obesity. Some of the potential health consequences include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- Heart disease as a result of elevated triglyceride levels.
- Type II diabetes mellitus.
- Gallbladder disease.
These are the 3 ways eating disorders affect your life. Now, let’s talk about the trap of your eating behaviors and preoccupations.
Eating Behaviors & Preoccupations
Particular eating behaviors occupy much of your life and days. Although they aren’t the real problem (what’s going on psychologically is), the behaviors are ways that eating disorders affect your life too. You’re consumed with the process of eating or not eating or feeling you’ve eaten too much. It’s a terrible trap.
The Trap Of How You Eat
You’re caught in it. Whether it’s anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, your life revolves around your preoccupation with food. Not food per se. But, with how you’re eating, what you’re eating, how much you can or can’t have. And it affects your life every hour of every day.
These behaviors have definite psychological roots and we’ll discuss those in a bit. But, the eating rituals themselves take on an important role in your everyday life. If you have anorexia, you must stick to very rigid rules. Starvation is what you strive for, even if you aren’t aware of it. You want to feel empty. To look in the mirror and see “skinny.”
And, you can never see “skinny” enough. You eat as little as possible. Maybe even count calories. If you struggle with bulimia or binge eating, you certainly feel hunger. Sometimes you can’t get enough. You binge and then you panic. If you’re bulimic, the feeling of fullness both frightens and disgusts you. Then you have to get rid of it.
These behaviors can fill up much of your day, making it difficult to get anything else done. If you’re starving, you can’t think well. If you’re binging, you’re shopping for all the food you want to eat. Finding a secret place to eat and, then, if necessary, to purge.
It’s a guilty pleasure. Or maybe, it’s not so much pleasure at all. Yet, what you do is “necessary.” It’s about being in control or when you feel you’re not able to be. And, much of what you do is secretive and can’t be seen by anyone.
Hiding Your Eating Problem
There are many ways of hiding. Hiding takes up a lot of energy and is another way an eating disorder affects your life. Baggy clothes to cover any weight loss. Lying about what you eat and don’t. Sneaking food, stashing it, and binging when no else is home or looking. Vomiting in secret so that no one hears or sees. Or making up a story that you’re sick with food poisoning or the flu.
You can’t let anyone know because they might stop you. And, you don’t want anyone interfering with how you eat. That’s a scary thought. Your eating disorder serves emotional purposes that you aren’t even aware of because they’re unconscious. All you know is that it can’t be taken away. So you have to keep it hidden.
You can’t give up your control over food.
Fear Of Losing Control
You try to keep tight control over food. In some ways, you’re successful, especially if you have anorexia. You pride yourself in how much control you have and how little you can eat at one meal or in one day. The less the better. Or if you’re bulimic or a binge eater, you try and try to eat less. And, sometimes you’re successful and feel good.
Then the hunger hits. And you binge. You can’t get enough. You’re literally starving. You eat until your stomach is bulging and you’re incredibly uncomfortable. That’s why you need to get rid of it. To get all that food out of you. To gain control again. You hate yourself for losing control over your hunger. But, you can’t help it.
Your hunger isn’t physical. Literally, as a child, you were emotionally starved.
What Eating Problems Are Really About
Maybe it’s now becoming clearer how eating disorders affect your life. But what is an eating problem about? Believe it or not, eating problems are not about food. They’re about emotional hungers that you feel must be controlled. Either you think you should need very little. Or you feel you need much too much. Either way, there’s a starving little child still living inside you from long ago. A child that was deprived and hurt.
A Starving Child Still Living Inside You
It’s not that you’ve failed to keep control over food. What you’ve been trying to control is the starving child inside you. That little child you once were but had no choice but to push aside. That child never got her (or his) emotional hungers satisfied. And what I’m talking about is love, not food. Now you try to tell that child not to need so much.
Every child is hungry for attention and love. That’s normal. Every child needs to be held. To feel heard, understood, and accepted. And love and attention are necessary to grow into a secure adult. Into an adult that knows you’re loved and feels it’s quite ok to turn to people to get what you need.
If you didn’t have that as a child, you were left hungry. You knew you couldn’t turn to the people in your life for what you needed, so you either tried to stop wanting it (at least thinking you did), or you felt the only way to get anything was to feed yourself. This is now played out with food.
Yet, really, what you experienced was childhood neglect of your emotional needs. And, your eating disorder affects your life because it keeps that child inside still hungry.
Childhood Neglect Of Emotional Needs
When you were a child, you didn’t get what you needed emotionally. This is a complicated thing and the historical reasons are different for everyone. Yet, the results are similar. You didn’t get enough love. Maybe you were ignored or expected to be grown-up too soon. Or, you had to take care of everyone else. No one took care of you.
You might have been criticized if you wanted anything. Yet, of course, all children do. And, no child can tolerate criticism, being made to feel “bad” or ashamed for what they legitimately need. No child wants to feel they’re supposed to be “good” and quiet. Every child needs someone they can turn to. And, every child needs love.
When there’s been no one in childhood to count on to give you the love or emotional understanding you need, you don’t trust there’s anyone you can count on now.
When you don’t get those very basic needs met, you turn away from needing them. You tell yourself you can’t expect it. So, “who cares?” You convince yourself, “I don’t need anything anyway.” What else could you do, but try to have no needs?
Telling Yourself You Need Nothing
It’s dangerous to need love and attention and care when there is no one trustworthy to give it to you. Really, it just hurts too much to be continually rejected. You think it’s better to have the control and to reject your needs before anyone else does. And it gives you a lot of power, doesn’t it, not to need any food?
This is the power you didn’t have as a child over the emotional food (love) that you needed. In fact, you were completely helpless. That’s a terrible situation to be in. But, now you can have all the power you want. You eat very little, you don’t take anything from people. Anyway, you have no trust you’d get it if you wanted it, so you don’t.
Yes, there’s a lot of control in convincing yourself you need nothing from anyone. You’ll go on very little, you’re tough. Or you’ll take care of your own needs and never again turn to anyone who might fail you. But, it isn’t working so well, is it? And sometimes all of your control breaks down and you’re hungry. Starving. But …
You Hate Yourself For Needing “Too Much”
You can’t need too much. And, you keep trying to control it. It’s likely, even as a child, you tried to shut your needs down. Maybe emotional hungers were not ok in your family. Or, maybe you were yelled at if you wanted anything. No one paid attention to your needs or made you feel safe. You started to feel you must want too much.
Now you struggle. You really try not to show your needs. And, this is expressed with food. If you eat very, very little – it’s a way of saying: “See. I don’t need you or anyone. I can live on almost nothing.” Or if you binge and then purge, you’re saying: “See, I really do need way too much. But I can get rid of my needs just like that.”
It’s your hatred of your emotional needs, and of that little child still living inside you (who is emotionally hungry,) that you really need help with. As this is worked out, you’ll also resolve your eating behaviors and the health risks you’re putting yourself in.
You can get help. It’s just a matter of finding the right kind. Someone you can grow to trust. And, who understands the heart of the problem. Your fear and distrust that anyone wants to or can give you what you need.
How To Find The Right Kind Of Help
You need an expert in the treatment of eating disorders. But, not “any” expert. Choose someone who doesn’t only focus on your eating behaviors. Someone that helps you work out your problems with emotional need that are at the root of your behaviors.
When you have an eating disorder, though, getting help isn’t easy. It means you have to admit that you do have needs. That you need help. And that you can’t get out of your eating disorder trap alone.
It’s complicated. Because when you’ve had a difficult or traumatic childhood and people have failed you, you don’t trust that you can count on anyone. Even a professional. And that, too, must be understood.
It’s very important to choose a therapist who understands how much of a struggle needing anything or anyone is. The best choice is someone with psychoanalytic training or a psychodynamic way of working. This means that your early history and the ways you’ve been hurt will be understood and linked to your problems with eating.
You want a specialist in eating disorders who knows there is a starving little child hiding inside you. And that you had no choice but to hate that child and your needs. Find a therapist who understands that you’re scared of opening up and having someone fail you again. And, that it takes time to trust.
With the right help, you can be free of your eating disorder. Your life can change.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychoanalyst and psychologist. I specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. My goal is to provide a safe place where you can work out your conflicts with the emotional hungers that make you feel your eating disorder is a necessity. Your life can change.