What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness commonly seen in teenagers and women.

This manifests itself in a disturbed body image, which is why people are very driven to lose as much body weight as possible.

It can take on life-threatening forms, requiring very intensive care for patients.

How do you recognize that you or someone you know is suffering from anorexia?

What does the treatment of this disorder involve?

And can anorexia be cured?

Read on for the answer to all your questions.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is driven by psychological problems surrounding self-image. The patient focuses heavily on lowering his own weight. This creates a strong feeling of fear, around everything that has to do with your own weight: weighing, eating, drinking.

The aim is a kind of perfect body image, which is strongly related to body weight and shape. In reality, however, this body image is life-threateningly thin. Losing weight is therefore never considered sufficient by the patient.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the development of this condition. There are, however, three factors that we assume can play a role.

Biological factors

There is a fairly high probability that the predisposition to develop anorexia is in our genetic material. What we often see is that the problem occurs several times in the same family. This may be due to certain (over) sensitivity, urge for perfectionism and perseverance.

Unfortunately, we do not yet know exactly which genes are involved in the development of anorexia. In addition, an imbalance in the hormones can also be the trigger.

Psychological factors

In addition, the psyche has an influence. We often see a predisposition for obsessive behavior in anorexic patients. Anxiety disorders or stressful situations can also fuel or worsen the (perhaps dormant) disorder.

In addition, trauma from the past can play a role. The extreme focus on body weight gives a sense of control, turning the condition into a coping style of sorts.

A coping style is the way people deal with problems and stress. Without the sense of control, this tension can become too much for the body. That is why all kinds of apparently illogical strategies can be devised in order to manage the situation.

Environmental factors

The Western, modern image of the ideal woman is aimed at being (very) slim. From an early age we have been bombarded with Barbie, Photoshop and skinny models. It is therefore considered very plausible that people pursue an unhealthy body image purely because they are given the wrong example of their environment.

Or even, because they have to! Look at an average modeling contract or expectations in the world of dancers and acrobats.

Symptoms of anorexia

Because anorexia nervosa is based on a highly distorted body image, its symptoms will also become physically visible. However, losing a lot of pounds does not happen overnight. That is why different phases are known.

The condition often starts with a dormant dissatisfaction with one’s own body. At some point, it can be concluded that losing excess pounds is the answer to this dissatisfaction. So far, someone does not show any specific symptoms of anorexia.

However, the typical anorexic behavior comes up when you lose the pounds. This gives a sense of control and the patient finds it very difficult to let this topic rest.

The goals for losing weight are getting higher and higher, while the patient still feels that the body is not sufficiently thin. This manifests itself in obsessive behavior, such as eating extremely little and counting a lot of calories.

In case of extreme hunger, food is occasionally consumed, but usually vomiting and laxation are used to cancel this intake.

Anorexia manifests itself in emotional behavioral symptoms, such as:

  • Constantly complaining about your own body
  • Persistent fasting or very low food intake
  • Developing abnormal habits during or around eating, such as spitting out food after chewing
  • Apathy (lack of emotion)
  • Above average often weigh themselves
  • Excessive sports
  • Lying about food intake and weight
  • Don’t want to eat in public
  • Obsessive behavior related to weight loss, food and body weight
  • Hotness
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Withdrawal
  • Wearing many layers of clothes on top of each other
  • Prepare and offer a lot of food, but don’t take anything yourself
  • Disappearing or using excuses during meals
  • Decreased libido
  • Binge eating, and then throwing up
  • Have very strict rules about which food is ‘suitable’
  • ‘Disapprove’ himself a lot in the mirror

But we also see more and more physical symptoms emerge over time, such as:

  • Retarded growth
  • Abnormal blood values
  • Almost constant cold sensations
  • Blue discoloration in the fingertips
  • Dizziness
  • Dry or yellow skin
  • Physically thin or even emaciated
  • Pass out
  • Hair loss
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sleep problems
  • Bad teeth and bad breath
  • Rapid or extreme weight loss
  • Increased hair growth on the body (as insulation)
  • Lack of menstruation
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the arms or legs

What is the difference between Anorexia and Bulimia?

Anorexia nervosa patients are often confused with the condition bulimia nervosa. Now specific parts of these disorders do indeed match. But they also have important differences.

In both conditions, the patients are overly concerned about their body weight and appearance. This involves an obsession with food, eating habits and weight loss.

The main difference between these two problems, however, is that anorexia patients lose weight. Their behavior makes them lose pounds and often they are under a healthy body weight. An anorexia patient is obsessive about losing weight.

Bulimia patients often remain at a healthy weight or even sit above it. They lose control over their behavior, causing them to eat much more than they actually want. A bulimia patient does eat (a lot), but also often uses sports, vomiting or laxative to get rid of this.


Diagnose anorexia

The problem with patients with anorexia nervosa is that they usually do not want to be treated. That is why it is difficult to get someone to see a doctor for a diagnosis.

Yet it is very important that it is set (on time). The eating disorder can cause irreparable damage to the body and cause problems such as:

  • Severe anemia
  • Heart problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Osteoporosis (fragile bones)
  • Fertility problems

One can also get serious mental problems, such as:

  • Alcohol or drug addiction
  • Depression
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Personality Disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Self-harm

That is why it is important to always keep talking to a patient. Don’t wait until someone has to be admitted to the hospital, it could be too late.

This is easier said than done, of course. You need a lot of patience to persuade an anorexic patient to seek treatment. There will be a lot of resistance and someone may want to avoid you to stop talking about the subject.

It is important that you remain friendly and show that you care about someone. Never blame an anorexic patient for the problems, they are caught in an almost unshakable psychological web of problems. Getting angry will only drive them further away, leaving help further away than ever.

Not sure what to do with the situation? Then go to the doctor and be referred to specialists. They can advise you on how to properly steer the patient in the right direction.

Treating anorexia nervosa

The treatment of anorexic patients is very time-consuming. Not only does the body have to recover from a violent period, but the psyche of a patient must be given attention.

That is why the treatment is divided into different parts.

Physical treatment

In order to restore the body, it is sometimes necessary for someone to be admitted to the hospital. Here the body weight and dehydration can be treated by tube feeding.

In addition, the additional depression and anxiety disorder is often treated with medication.

Note: the medication must be part of the treatment. The intention is that, in the event of significant improvement, this will be accompanied by a gradual reduction. To then stop the medication completely.

Mental treatment

However, the mental treatment of a patient with anorexia nervosa is the greatest challenge. Often this is an urge or tendency that one will struggle with throughout their lives. This is quite a challenge, which the patient’s environment must also be aware of.

Usually an intensive process is set up with different types of therapy.

First of all, the patient receives individual therapy, in which the treatment focuses on developing healthy thoughts and habits. Extra work is done on self-confidence and dealing with strong emotions or problems.

In addition, patients receive group therapy, in which they exchange experiences and thoughts with several patients at the same time under the guidance of a professional. In this way, the patient sees that he or she is not alone and the patients can help each other.

It is also often opted for extra family therapy. This involves the patient and the family in a guided discussion group. The family often plays an important role in the environment when the patient returns home.

The therapy is therefore aimed at helping the patient, but also at resolving family conflicts and problems. In this way they again form a tight, strong group.

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