Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is a complex and multi-dimensional form of mental illness. There are strong genetic, familial and social aspects involved in the development of the disorder. It is also common for anxiety, depressive or personality disorders to be present or develop in patients with AN.

Estimations are that 1%-4.2% of women will suffer from the disorder in their lifetime, depending on how strictly the diagnostic criteria is used. Anorexia in men is about a tenth as common as in women, but still occurs. AN also occurs more often in westernised countries than non-westernised countries. However anorexia in developing countries is also on the rise as fewer and fewer cultures embrace a curvy, feminine shape

Quite frighteningly anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses emphasising the seriousness of the disorder. This is most likely due to the general acceptance of underweight by society. Statistics show that only one tenth of people with eating disorders ever receive treatment.

The onset of anorexia nervosa often occurs during adolescence. This is thought to be because of a lack of acceptance of pubertal body changes and heightened concern about shape and size. However, recent studies have shown the age of onset to more frequently occur at as young as 9 years old.

Personality types most likely to develop AN are commonly introverted, obsessive, perfectionists. They are often very high achievers with a desire to control every aspect of their lives, this includes controlling their weight to extreme levels. Despite accomplishment they are known to feel ineffective, with a low self esteem.

Patients commonly have a distorted body image, believing that they are overweight despite the fact that they are very thin, malnourished or wasted. Some are critical of their whole bodies, while others believe a specific part to be overweight. For example stomach, arms, thighs etc. Basically when looking in the mirror they see something completely different to what the world sees.

Frequently the family lifestyle of a person with anorexia is well off and overprotected, with many inflexible rules and poor conflict resolution. The sufferer may act out to get attention or gain control of at least one area of their lives.

Some behaviours used by people with anorexia to control their weight include:

  • Stopping eating/limiting eating severely
  • Vomiting
  • Taking pills(diuretics, laxatives, diet pills),
  • Exercising excessively regardless of illness, injury or weather. They may also exercise to compensate for eating what they believe to have been too much.
  • Count calories and weigh food, this often becomes an obsession and a huge stress and cause for self-punishment.
  • Cutting food groups or certain foods
  • Playing with food and moving it around, but not eating

If you believe that somebody you know is showing signs of having anorexia it is important to do your best to make sure that they get help. If you aren’t very close to the person, perhaps speak to someone in their family or close friendship circle. The person should be spoken to in a supportive and non-confrontational manner. Tell them your concerns and recommend that they seek professional help. Proper treatment requires the involvement of a doctor, dietician and therapist.

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