What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

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Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a distorted body image and self-starvation despite extremely low body-weight. An individual suffering from anorexia weighs less than 85 percent of his or her ideal weight and experiences extreme fear of gaining weight.

Who Does Anorexia Affect?

This eating disorder primarily affects young women, usually starting sometime during middle adolescence. However, recent findings have shown an increase among middle-aged women and young men.

What Causes Anorexia?

Genetic influences, the influence of popular media images and a need for control have all been implicated as possible causes of anorexia nervosa. There are some different risk factors associated with the onset of anorexia:

  • Those who have a family history of the disorder are much more likely to develop it themselves.
  • Individuals who participate in sports or athletics are also thought to be at a greater risk, especially those in sports that emphasize thinness or have weight requirements such as ballet or wrestling.
  • Being young and female, however, are still considered two of the greatest risk factors for the disorder.

Symptoms of Anorexia

Anorexia often affects multiple areas of a person’s life. While most people think of extreme thinness as the primary physical symptom of the disorder, there are some physical symptoms as well as behavior and emotional signs. Physical symptoms can include severe weight loss, thinning hair, loss of menstrual period among females, sensitivity to the cold, brittle bones, and lightheadedness.

Typical behavioral symptoms that are often seen in people suffering from anorexia include:

  • A preoccupation with food and weight
  • Exercising excessively
  • An extreme fear of gaining weight
  • Withdrawal from friends or social situations
  • Extreme changes in diet

Not surprisingly, anorexia takes a heavy emotional toll as well. Some of the most common emotional symptoms of anorexia include depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety.

How Is Anorexia Treated?

Treatments for anorexia can vary based on the individual and the situation. In cases where the person’s life is in immediate danger, hospitalization may be necessary to treat malnutrition, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and heart problems. The long-term treatment for anorexia frequently involves a team of professionals, including doctors to address immediate physical concerns, psychologists to focus on underlying mental health issues, and dietitians to educate patients about nutrition.

Treating anorexia can be challenging, however, since many sufferers do not believe that they need treatment. Some view their behaviors as a lifestyle choice rather than a disorder, making it difficult to get them to enter treatment. The fear of gaining weight also poses a significant barrier to effective treatment. Even among those who know that they need help, their excessive fear of gaining back any weight makes it difficult to seek assistance.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary