Eating Disorders: A “Relatable” Mental Illness

People sometimes think they understand eating disorders because they can “relate.” They can relate to feeling unattractive, or not liking their body, or wanting to meet societal beauty standards. They too have skipped a meal, or forced themselves to exercise, or haven’t liked what they see in the mirror. And that’s what an eating disorder is, right?

Thinking the above keeps people from seeing what an eating disorder actually is: a severe and life-threatening mental illness.

It’s like how feeling sad isn’t the same as depression, or feeling nervous isn’t the same as an anxiety disorder. And just as emotions like sadness or anxiety are common, it’s all too common an experience to feel bad about your appearance because of our culture’s oppressive beauty norms. It’s so universal that nobody blinks an eye when someone mentions they dislike X part of their body and are taking Y measures to change it. But do they feel hate and disgust towards their looks? Do they feel that way all the time? Are the measures they’re taking extreme?

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They’re often a severe mental illness, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

Many people dislike some aspects of their appearance, but it doesn’t stop them from functioning. For instance, with an eating disorder, appearance becomes a weapon. Every single angle is scrutinized and criticized, all day every day. Any reflective surface, even just walking past the window of a parked car, deepens a mental wound that feels like it never heals. There is rarely a moment where that pain isn’t burning a hole in your head, and yeah, that absolutely impairs a person’s ability to function.

A severely negative body image– as described above– is just one symptom of an eating disorder. There’s restricting food intake, binge eating, purging through vomiting, laxative abuse, or overexercising; constant body checking, food fixations, extreme mood swings; tooth erosion, hair loss, dizziness, weight fluctuation, lanugo; irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, amenorrhea, impaired immune system. Often these symptoms lead to or intensify depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction, and suicide ideation. If you want to know more about warning signs and symptoms, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is one of the top resources for information.

Imagine how hard it is to function when so much of your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual energy is tied up trying to survive the above. It’s important to emphasize here that this mental illness extends far beyond just food or even body; it impacts every aspect of a person’s life.

An eating disorder is psychological warfare on your existence.

When I tell people eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, surpassed only by opioid addiction, the most common reaction is surprise. Nobody who has experienced one is surprised. It speaks to the need for awareness that so many people don’t know that every kind of eating disorder can be deadly, especially if left untreated.

That’s what this is really about– people wouldn’t relate to eating disorders if they understood the reality of having one. If people understand that reality, they’ll recognize the seriousness of this mental illness. It’s my hope that these understandings could lead to faster intervention, earlier access to treatment, and to saving lives.

If you think you might be at risk of having or developing an eating disorder, there is an NEDA Screening Tool to help you determine if you should seek professional help. However, this test is not a diagnostic tool. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, it’s important to get evaluated by a mental health professional.

I would strongly advise seeking professional help if you are concerned about yourself or a loved one. If you feel like what you’re experiencing isn’t “bad enough” to get help, I want you to take that thought and throw it in a trash can and set that trash can on fire. Get help no matter where you’re at and the earlier the better!

If you think you or a loved one has a negative body image, there are online resources and self-help workbooks that can help you identify how your negative body image is impacting your life, and provide tools you can use to change the way you view about yourself. I would still strongly recommend therapy, particularly dialectical + cognitive behavioral therapy, because a negative body image lives entirely in the mind. A mental health professional can help. Therapy is for everyone!

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