The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.
When you hear the term “eating disorder,” you may initially think about young women, or teenagers who are emaciated and clearly in need of intervention. Eating disorders are not always easy to recognize, however, and people with these disorders are often skilled at managing the appearance of symptoms and keeping those symptoms carefully under control. Managing weight changes through clothing choices, managing unhealthy eating habits under the guise of going on a diet, and even managing the side effects of eating disorders—including hair loss, organ damage, and even damage to the GI tract—through intense attention to personal hygiene can all make it nearly impossible to recognize the presence of an eating disorder in the people who are nearest and dearest to the individual with the disorder.
Common Causes of Eating Disorders
There is no single cause of eating disorders; instead, eating disorders are usually caused by several intertwined factors. Genetic predisposition, mental health, social pressures, and even life events can all come together to construct an ideal environment for eating disorder development, and people who begin exhibiting symptoms can often trace the start of the disorder back to one of these factors:
- Genetic predisposition. Genetics can play a role in the onset of an eating disorder, as twin studies have suggested that eating disorders may actually run in families. Whether that contribution occurs as a result of exposure to eating disorders others might not have, or solely a genetic impulse is not certain but if eating disorders are prevalent in a family, others within that family may be at risk.
- Other mental health conditions and disorders. Eating disorders rarely exist within a vacuum. Instead, most develop in conjunction with other disorders or conditions. Anxiety, depression, other mood disorders and even personality disorders can all contribute to the onset of an eating disorder, and people with these conditions may be at greater risk for showing symptoms of an eating disorder.
- Social pressures. People who are embroiled in appearance-focused societies may also be at risk for eating disorders. This is largely because these individuals feel pressured to look a certain way—usually a way that involves limited weight.
- Stressful life events. Moving, parental divorce, job loss, and more can all trigger the mental health concerns that lead to an eating disorder. These stressful life events can act as a trigger for eating disorders because eating disorders can be sought after as a means of feeling in control.
Standard Eating Disorder Treatments
The most common first step to treat an eating disorder is to seek mental health treatment. Because eating disorders are first and foremost mental health conditions, tackling the thought patterns that lead to eating disorder development is crucial. Underlying mental health concerns may also be treated during psychotherapy sessions, and may include medication and lifestyle interventions designed to target depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and other mental disorders that can act as co-morbid conditions to eating disorders of all types.
What Is the Outlook for Recovery?
Eating disorders are accompanied by a host of complications, some of them relatively short-term in nature, such as discoloration of the teeth, and others potentially lifelong, such as infertility. The precise outlook for recovery from eating disorders depends on numerous factors, including the duration of the disorder going untreated, co-morbid mental conditions that may impede healing, and even physical changes that can act as roadblocks to healing. Despite these possible complications, eating disorders are considered treatable, and do benefit from a team of professionals, including mental health professionals, nutritionists or dietitians, and pharmacists.
Helping Someone With an Eating Disorder
One of the most significant ways you can help someone with an eating disorder is to remove the focus off of food, eating, and weight. Seemingly innocuous questions like “What are we eating?” or “Have you lost weight?” can trigger feelings of shame or discomfort. Removing questions about food, weight, and appearance can help soothe the feelings of people with eating disorders, and can limit the amount of focus that is placed on physicality.
Helping someone with an eating disorder can also mean staging an intervention or helping them get help. From holding a literal intervention meeting, to researching and finding a psychologist or other mental health professional well-versed in this arena, helping someone with an eating disorder typically means helping them help themselves by attending to their mental health. To learn more about eating disorders.