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Mental Health Myth Busting: Eating Disorders

Scarlett Reid, Print Science Editor thoughtfully discusses the myths that surround eating disorders and how to combat those stereotypes

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Although I was contemplating dedicating this post to #NEDAW 2019, I want to emphasise that mental health is no less significant at any other time of the year. Likewise, creating awareness about eating disorders is not an action solely confined to a single week of the year. I’d like to talk candidly about how society’s expectations of those with eating disorders differ from reality. I do not consider myself an expert, however am informed by my own experiences as well as of those who have openly shared their stories with me.

A resonant quote I heard recently is particularly relevant with regard to mental health. It is that ‘true understanding does not always require empathy; it requires a change in perspective.’

Myth 1: Seeing is believing. If someone doesn’t appear visually unwell or underweight, then they can’t possibly have an eating disorder. WRONG. Just like any aspect of mental health, our thoughts and feelings are not visible, tangible entities. You cannot hear a person’s thoughts, and individuals may be reserved in expressing their emotions. Moreover, an eating disorder is a mental disorder which can, but may not necessarily, have physical side effects. It’s possible to have disordered thoughts around food whilst overweight, at a healthy weight and whilst underweight. Correlation doesn’t always imply causation. There is no ‘look’ to an eating disorder. Hence, an individual is no less worthy of seeking help and receiving treatment because of their weight. Put simply, if someone is struggling, reaching out for support is a brave and worthwhile decision.

if someone is struggling, reaching out for support is a brave and worthwhile decision

Myth 2: Eating disorders most commonly involve not eating. This is an example of misinformation. Whilst some living with an eating disorder may restrict their intake or fast, this is not a representative assumption. To remind readers, there are a variety of different diagnoses and terms existing: Binge Eating Disorder, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), Anorexia Nervosa, Anorexia Athletica, Bulimia Nervosa, Compulsive Eating, Orthorexia and many others. Therefore, just as there are a range of types of eating disorder, there are also a range of ways in which these are manifested. Furthermore, with the current waiting time for specialist treatment averaging up to three years, you do not have to be diagnosed to have an eating disorder. The diagnosis is not a validation, a label or a determinant of a person’s identity. Co-morbidities exist and so treatments often need to target a wide range of disordered behaviours.

celebrate the small victories

Myth 3: An eating disorder is a form of attention seeking. NO. Eating disorders are complex illnesses, contributed to by a range of genetic and environmental factors, from stress to hormonal changes to life events. Eating disorders are not a choice.

Myth 4: Eating disorders are a sign of vanity. Countless times, I have heard the assumption that eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa, stem from idolisation of models in magazines or slim celebrities. More often than not, at the core of the disorder is a yearning for control. There is a sense that food, exercise or how one treats their body can be a tool to engineer the outcome of certainty in an aspect of life. In fact, weight is often not the driving force of the unhealthy thought patterns.

Myth 4: Just eat. That’s the answer to the complex web of conflicting thoughts and behaviours. You just need to simply grab a muffin or a pizza and eat the Goddamn thing. Unfortunately, it is neither that simple nor that easy. This is a short-term outlook on a long-term recovery process. Ultimately, food is not the central determinant of recovery. Eating a healthy balanced diet and restoring weight when underweight is incredibly important for optimum health and physical recovery. But, recovery is an ongoing process of mental and physical self-growth that begins in the mind.

Recovery is a process, not an end-point, and it’s one to be shared with others

Recovery for some might be waking up an hour later because their mind is telling them they must wake up extremely early to exercise; recovery may be drinking tea in a different mug because they are afraid to use another; recovery may be having lunch in the dining room, not the living room to tackle the compulsion to always eat in the same place; recovery can be taking your multivitamins, because even though you fear they contain energy, they don’t and won’t make you gain weight; recovery can be pouring gravy on your roast dinner because it tastes nice and numbers don’t define your worth; recovery can be spending an extra ten minutes of quality time with family or friends because you don’t have to shut yourself away and you deserve to socialise; recovery can be smiling and laughing because it’s okay to let go and enjoy. The list goes on, because recovery is not one size fits all. It’s not all Domino’s pizza and going out for meals, or beautifully angled Instagram photos of smoothie bowls and salads.  It’s not perfect. It’s not linear. There is no single quick fix. Holistic recovery is not solely medical monitoring and GP appointments, nor is it solely cognitive behavioural therapy or mentoring. Oftentimes, it a mixture of various forms of treatment, overseen by openness with those around you. Recovery is a process, not an end-point, and it’s one to be shared with others.

Myth 5: Once at a healthy weight, you are fully recovered. The term ‘recovered’ is definitive. However, whilst some may truly believe that they are mentally and physically happy and stable and would like to consider themselves recovered, others see recovery as a lifelong process – a work in progress. Often, because the thoughts and behaviours are so deeply ingrained and interwoven in neural pathways of the brain, it takes a very long time to develop healthy habits. Moreover, just as life is unpredictable and not without its bumps and twists in the road, recovery is no different. Because of this, many believe, myself included, that recovery is a decision you make each and every day, working to challenge and improve yourself in both familiarity and the unknown. For example, when a person breaks a bone (cliché I know, but hear me out), they can recover this damage in part through resting, therapy and physical treatment. However, once a bone has been broken, it is inherently impacted and altered, rendering it more susceptible to future fracture or breakage. That’s not to undermine recovery or suggest that we are damaged by our experiences. But, the truth is, we are changed. We learn and we develop strength we may not otherwise have known. We can learn about ourselves and even use this to help others. All the while, we must make conscious decisions to challenge the thoughts that may still arise, equipped with the lessons we’ve learnt to do the next right thing.

Whilst, I could go on indefinitely, I’d like to leave you all with a message: celebrate the small victories. Recovery is relative, and those little accomplishments not only cumulatively add up to something big, but in themselves merit a sense of achievement. The first step towards self-acceptance is to see that your capabilities stretch so much further than your fears will ever take you.

 

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