Health & Wellness

Eating Disorders: How to take back control

Utah State University has not been bypassed when it comes to America's obsession with youth and beauty. The standard that society has set as beauty will never be achieved, although many desperately try to conform to this certain ideal. A perfect body image has been skewed to an unhealthy physical fixation.


Eating disorders are not directly caused by the media's claim that "thin is in," but the messages sent to women affect the way they perceive their own bodies. Women try to achieve model-like figures and when they do not see results through diet and exercise they experiment with other methods. This is usually when an eating disorder begins.

Anorexia nervosa is one of the eating disorders that is difficult to maintain because it is literal starvation. The collection of symptoms of anorexia nervosa are a distorted perception of the body, an intense fear of becoming fat, low self-esteem and a little sense of control. Anorexia is also characterized by an extreme weight loss -- 20 to 25 percent of body weight.

Mary Doty, a counselor at the USU counseling center, quoted a recovered anorexic who said, "A perfect anorexic is a dead anorexic."

The thing most people are unaware of is an eating disorder is a psychological disease as well as physical. After losing the desired weight, victims become caught in a continuous mind trap that many cannot escape. It becomes the focus of the the victim's life, something she is scared of and yet something she is scared of losing.

"I wanted so badly to understand what she felt, why she didn't see food in a normal, healthy way. I wanted her to be healthy and I wanted her obsessive thoughts to go away and leave her alone and give her peace," said Sherry, the mother of a USU student recovery from an eating disorder.

Bulimia is another eating disorder and is characterized by secretive binge-eating episodes that are followed by vomiting. Fasting and using laxatives are also methods used by a bulimic. Bulimics eat to cope with feelings of depression and low self-esteem. They feel guilty for eating and losing control so they tend to eat in secret. They are sociable, recognize there is a problem and are more willing to accept help.

"Eating disorders are a form of substance abuse and individuals who struggle with an eating disorder appear to go through similar addictive cycles as those who suffer with alcohol and other forms of drug abuse," said Harold A. Frost, Ph.D., in the Center for Change information packet, available at the USU counseling center.

The eating disorder is a way the victim can relieve inner distress in their life. This means it becomes a diversion from negative life experiences and thoughts. By conquering their goals of weight loss, victims find a sense of control in their otherwise chaotic lives. Ironically, by expending energies on dieting and by exhausting themselves with worry, victims are completely out of control.

Individuals who succumb to this disease tend to have type-A personalities. They are perfectionists that are hard on themselves and seek to accomplish goals even when they are unhealthy and dangerous. This continuous striving for perfection gradually transforms into obsession and entrapment. Food soon becomes an enemy, while friendships and intimate relationships are strained and sometimes terminated.

"After having children who were not very motivated in school, it was a delight to have a child who was self-motivated and worked to excel at everything she did. Sadly, this probably contributed to her desire to have a perfect image, including a body image," said Sherry.

Doty said the activities that put people more at risk for eating disorders are dancing, gymnastics, cross-country running and ice skating. These activities focus more on weight, she said, and you are constantly in the public eye. Participating in these recreations can really set the stage for problems, because there is a demand for perfection, she said.

Various counseling therapies are used to treat these disorders. Individual therapy helps the patient regain physical health, rebuild an inflated self-esteem and continue to develop personal and social progress. Group therapy allows the patient to communicate feelings of loneliness and anger with individuals who can give her feedback and true insight. This type of therapy also helps the patient improve their social skills. Family therapy attempts to instill better communication and establish appropriate eating habits.

"She learned in counseling to separate herself from the eating disorder. She taught me how to do that. This freed her to step outside and look at it for what it was. Then she gradually learned to let it go away," said Sherry.

In Doty's experience working with eating disorder patients, Dr. James Prochaska, Rhode Island Medical Center, has a successful "Stages of Change" model that she has incorporated into her sessions, which help in the recovery process. Doty said the first step is acknowledging there is a problem and leaving "denial land." There must be a gained awareness and a commitment from the patient if they really want to get better, she said.

The second step to recovery is to step back and really try to find out how they got to that place. Doty calls this "feeling work" because it is a process of self understanding and reflecting inward to figure things out.

The third step is to get ready to make big changes. This means it is vital to have a strong support network that will help you throughout the entire recovery. Planning for relapses is important because they will happen and being prepared is the most effective way to handle them. Action is the next stage, which is where the most mental healing is done. A different way of thinking and acting must occur and it takes a lot of energy. It is by making changes the thinking, behaving and feeling all come together, Doty said.

The last stage is important to the success of the patient over the course of the rest of their life, and it is maintenance. This stage is the most neglected Doty said because it takes a long time to gain back confidence and self-esteem, especially if it was never there.

Recovery is not easy and it is a long emotional ordeal. Family and friends are instrumental in helping an individual overcome all of the mental and physical fatigue that result from an eating disorder. Trust, love and support all need to be reinforced throughout the process because the patient is tired and embarrassed about the pain she has caused herself and others.

When Sherry was asked what advice she would give a mother coping with a daughter with an eating disorder, she said, "To love and listen to her. To separate her from the eating disorder and to not let a single moment go by that you cannot enjoy together. To have faith in her. To ask how you can help her and then to try. To pray for her and for yourself. To remember that rainbows come after a rain."

Once in recovery the energies that once drove an eating disorder can be converted into a passion to help others. A sense of accomplishment and victory can be felt. The wild beast that destroyed one's self worth and weakened their strength has now been tamed. This person that has in the past anguished with feelings of worthlessness, anger and pain can now enjoy serenity and calmness.

"Now she is able to share her experience so that others can benefit. She is less hard on herself. She enjoys the peaceful things in life," said Sherry.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reference USU Eating Disorders Help Page for further on-campus information and help.


By Heather Hinze

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