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Life with an Eating Disorder

Pondering How I Look; Forgetting to be Who I am

pondering girl

How it Begins

Often times people ponder, or obsess over how they look. Comparing oneself to magazines or unattainable fantasy standards has become a guide post for many. Peer pressure, perfectionism, societal norms, and even the guise of "being healthy" can consume our thoughts and behaviors. Eating Disorders can often start as an innocent and well-meaning stride toward a healthier lifestyle. Such reasonable beginnings can result in unreasonable patterns. "We are working to watch what we eat." "I am training for a sporting event." "The Homecoming dance is next month." "I am just dieting to lose a few pounds, nothing too drastic."

Patients often struggle with more covert and clinical issues that exacerbate such innocent beginnings to a life-threatening disorder. Many people eat to try to soothe self-defeating feelings that stem from a traumatic sexual or physical assault, silent a neglectful parent, an abusive guardian, or another difficult, life changing event. Using food, weight, or calories often becomes a focus that overpowers a person's functional coping skills to manage emotions, thoughts and behaviors. The debilitating feelings that accompany a victim of abuse or chaotic experiences may cause a person to seek feelings of control through food, or lack of it.

Eating for comfort or celebration has often been a method used in many families, activities and cultures. It is healthy and normal to do so. Self-awareness is important in these situations. Using food as a response to life stressors can become harmful and disordered. Enjoying food is wonderful and can be a great way to socialize and have fun. Overeating, binging and purging, or abstaining from food are not appropriate ways to cope with sadness, grief, anxiety, and worry or trauma. This and other addictions are not the answer to dealing with feelings. All of us need to remain mindful of our emotions. Positive coping strategies and positive self-care are strengthening and healing. Learning to identify, feel, and share feelings are also important to a strong recovery. Each individual has interests and personal preferences of comfort and these can be incorporated in one's own individual coping strategies for healing and self-nurture.

Those with Eating Disorders often suffer from a distorted body image. This is especially common in anorexic patients, as well as underweight bulimic patients, or overeaters. The disorder often distorts the person's thoughts and ability to process emotions appropriately. A favorite psychiatrist friend of mine commented on eating disordered patients, "She pointed to a picture in a magazine of a beautiful model and said she wanted to look like her. I truly thought, she looked exactly like that." He pondered what lots of family members and friends of people with eating disorders wonder. In this case, that person's disordered thinking left her feeling that she was not pretty and, to others, she indeed was. Overweight people often view themselves as weak and unattractive. These harmful thoughts often lead to other self-destructive behaviors that can involve cutting or other forms of physical harm, substance abuse, or attraction to someone that harms them. Codependent or abusive relationships may repeat abuse history or reinforce the poor self-image that has increased as the person's disorder has progressed. There can often be symptoms of numbing, avoidance, or dissociation that has developed as a precursor to the disorder, or as a response to continued eating disorder behaviors that potentiate the destructive negative self-talk and reactions to repeated unhealthy choices. Often these choices are a symptom of eating disorders. One's brain chemistry is affected by food choice as well as lack of proper food intake. As emotions, thoughts, and behaviors become increasingly out of control, the brain's physical reaction can often become impaired as well. As mentioned earlier, eating disorders are often an attempt to gain control in one's life. The combination of emotionally distorted thinking and physically impaired cognition makes healthy control unattainable. Eating Disorders can be life threatening.

Getting Help

Mental health issues can feel overwhelming. Many times, people are embarrassed for experiencing these symptoms or find themselves unable to ask for outside help. Weakened self-esteem and brain functioning with emotional struggles makes this even harder. Most people struggle with some difficulty in their lives. Reaching out for help takes courage. Recovery and strong mental health is not only possible, it is an amazing reality. Life will still have its challenges, but with healthy transitions through therapy, better decisions, positive coping skills, a clearer brain, and positive support, life can become more enjoyable.

People are encouraged to seek counsel if one's thoughts of food, dieting, calories, nutritional facts, or weight and body image are recurring and invasive. If a friend or loved one appears to be suffering from symptoms, please be mindful and encourage them to seek help for themselves.

Nina Lackey, Licensed Professional Counselor, is a Clinical Associate with Family Guidance Centers in our Chesterfield office. She provides individual, child, family, and marital therapy. Mrs Lackey has been in practice for over 30 years. She can be reached at 804-743-0960 or can be emailed at

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