Why are eating disorders considered mental illnesses?
By Britton Peters, MS LMHCA
Most of us have wondered about our mental health a few times in our life. We may have even looked at our eating patterns and wondered if our habits are abnormal.
We are around food constantly (I mean, we live with it and have a relationship with it!) and our bodies require a significant amount of food daily to survive.
How do we know if we have a problem? And how do we know when to seek mental health treatment?
Mental illness defined
We could look up the lengthy clinical definitions for eating disorders and mental illnesses. But, what we need to know is really quite simple. A mental illness or mental health disorder that is clinically significant (meaning that treatment should be sought) is characterized by two main factors:
- Having thoughts or feelings that result in being unhappy with your life and your ability to live it.
- Experiencing a decrease in your quality of life as a result of your suffering or having problems going about your daily life normally.
Treatment should be sought when both (1) and (2) above are co-occurring.
How do you know if you have an eating disorder?
People with eating disorders commonly hide or deny that they are in distress. And, symptoms can be hard to detect in others.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know might have an eating disorder, it is helpful to know how to identify some of the more common signs of distress — or a decreased quality of life.
Here are 10 common signs of distress that you might see in someone with an eating disorder:
- Constant intrusive thoughts regarding food or body image
- Feeling like these food or body image issues have taken over your life
- Constant desire to act on these thoughts by purging, binging, excessive exercising, or checking body image
- Inability to focus on other tasks well
- Significant anxiety and physiological responses to beliefs about food or body image resulting from triggers (racing heart, trembling, sweating, headaches, flushed face, or hypervigilance)
- Inability to have meals with others, including avoiding going to restaurants with your friends or simply coming to the table for dinner with your family
- Feeling guilty about being hungry
- Thoughts about eating disorder behaviors affecting loved ones
- Recognizing a dysfunctional pattern with eating in your life
- Inability to function physically on a daily basis (feeling weak, vulnerable and fatigued)
In some cases, nutritional instability becomes a distress sign (and to be clear, you don’t have to be a low weight to be lacking nutrition! You can be mal-nourished due to bad eating habits at any weight!).
How eating disorders affect mental health
Many moms will tell their children, “if you do not eat, your brain cannot work properly!” These moms are right. Our brain functioning is impacted and shows signs of problems when we struggle with an eating disorder.
Our thoughts affect our behaviors. We can train our brains (sometimes without even realizing that we did!) how to respond to certain things in our lives.
For example, if I continually believe that I look more beautiful after having my morning coffee, morning coffee then becomes a trigger stimulus for me to feel beautiful. I trained my brain to believe that coffee makes me beautiful. If only we could increase our mental health quality with just coffee! We would probably all being doing fantastic.
The same is true with behaviors and thoughts that someone would have in the course of an eating disorder. Thoughts about your body or food become trained to certain behaviors.
If I believe that my body is ugly and overweight, the thought or sight of food is a painful reminder that I am unhappy with my body. That painful reminder then leads to behaviors like restricting, binging, or purging.
Take the brave step toward recovery
Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Thankfully, professionals are successfully diagnosing and treating mental health concerns every day. We can all take the steps to educate ourselves and learn about making changes. These steps will lead us in the direction of a higher quality relationship with food. After all, we truly need it to live.