Everyone around you says you’re thin, but you don’t believe them, so you cut down your food intake, and maybe exercise excessively to lose weight. Or, you don’t feel good about yourself, so you eat, you feel guilty, so you splurt it out, either by inducing vomiting, or taking laxatives. These are what eating disorders look like.
Stress and anxiety, which have become intrinsic to the modern, fast-paced lifestyle, can affect our eating behaviour. But they don’t always lead to eating disorders. To learn about the impact of stress and anxiety on our eating behaviour in general and eating disorders in particular, Onlymyhealth spoke to Dr Sandeep Vohra, Senior Consultant, Mental Health & Psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.
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According to him, stress and anxiety can have a direct impact on eating, which can be of two types:
- General: In this, stress can make people suffer from anorexia or hyperphagia. In the case of the former, the person loses his/her appetite, while the opposite happens in the latter’s case. A person can have these irrespective of gender or age and there could be underlying reasons, such as clinical depression, anxiety, or one could be an emotional eater.
- Eating disorders: Classical psychiatric disorders, these have many kinds, but chiefly, a person with an eating disorder suffers either from what is called anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
These could be due to underlying psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and stress and females are more prone to them than men, Dr Vohra explained.
Kinds Of Eating Disorders
1# Anorexia Nervosa: A condition in which a person excessively limits his/her calorie intake, anorexia nervosa results from a misconception of someone feeling that he/she is overweight. An example: “You’ll see a very thin girl telling you, ‘I am overweight,’” Dr Vohra explained. The appearance is too thin.
2# Bulimia Nervosa: Not an antithet to anorexia nervosa, in bulimia nervosa, there are phases of bulimic eating. To lose weight, those with this condition first fast, then get hunger pangs, due to which they eat too much. Next, they feel guilty and get the food out by puking or taking laxatives. Those with bulimia look normal.
Causes Behind Eating Disorders
Following are some notable causes of eating disorders that are essential to understand a proper treatment:
- Genetic loading of psychiatric disorders in some people.
- Psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression.
- Stress of any kind, be it familial, professional or relationship.
- It’s generally seen that people in those businesses where looks matter are more prone to eating disorders.
Signs Of Eating Disorders
Someone with an eating disorder may display these peculiar symptoms:
- Gets anxious, cranky and irritable
- Has an inability to gain weight despite a good appetite
- Is too conscious of how he/she looks or how much he/she weighs
- Connects his/her self-worth with how he/she looks
- Has a distorted image about self to a point that someone weighing 50 kilos would say he/she is fat.
Why are people with eating disorders stuck in a cycle?
It is often seen that a person who has an eating disorder gets anxious, so he/she eats, then feels guilty, fasts and again binge-eats. This is because they’ve repetitive thoughts that they’re gaining weight, explained Dr Vohra.
How Food Helps Reduce Stress For Some People?
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Food, especially packed with carbohydrates, leads to the secretion of a chemical, dopamine in the brain, which relaxes and calms the brain. So, whenever we eat, it sends an immediate signal of positivity and calm to the brain, the psychiatrist explained. It is but a simple biochemical reaction. Then comes emotional eaters, who tend to cope with anxiety by eating. When stressed, we don’t grab an apple or a tomato, it’s generally sugar. Why does this happen? That’s because sugar soothes, it gives a sense of relief, calm and instant kick.
The opposite also happens. There are different hunger centers in the brain. Stress and anxiety have different impacts on them, in different people. In some cases, it gets overactive, in others, it gets underactive, Dr Vohra explained.
Are Women More Prone To Eating Disorders?
Yes, women are more prone to developing eating disorders than men. This, according to Dr Vohra, is because society, and sometimes even women, connect their self worth with how they look. It can be widely seen on social media that a woman is judged by how she looks, or how much she weighs.
How To Treat Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders can be clinically treated, however, anorexia is more difficult to treat than bulimia. As sometimes, the patient loses so much weight that it takes a physical toll on her. Also, the effect of treatment depends on the chronicity of the condition. The sooner you seek treatment, the better. Although more and more people are seeking help for mental health issues, fewer people opt for treatment in case of eating disorders.
How To Cope With Eating Disorders?
There are some strategies that can help you cope with them:
- Try to decrease the stress, which could be the cause of the disorder.
- Do yoga, meditation, or other physical activities.
- Get 6-8 hours of sleep regularly
Tips To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder
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If someone around you has an eating disorder, there are ways you can help her/him out:
- Address the situation by first encouraging the person to confide in you.
- Don’t talk about the eating disorder, rather talk about what’s bothering him/her.
- Let that person confide in you that she/he is having an eating disorder.
- Try to address the root cause of it.
And it’s always good to seek early professional help.
(With inputs from Dr Sandeep Vohra, Senior Consultant, Mental Health & Psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi)
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