Underlying every eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating disorder is the issue of control. Those suffering with these complex disorders, comprising both core emotional and psychological issues along with physiological problems generally develop their eating disorders as a coping mechanism to obtain a feeling of control when other aspects of their lives become chaotic, stressful or overwhelming. Low self-esteem, dysfunctional family situations and negative body image are typical contributory factors that lead individuals to unhealthful management of food. Whether it is severe restriction of nourishment, cyclical binging and purging, or excessive consumption of food the underlying impulse is the same: control.
Mental health professionals working with eating disordered individuals have identified a common theme running through their diagnoses of those afflicted with anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating disorder. Many patients in treatment reveal that their eating disorders initially developed out of a desire to feel in control of some aspect of their lives when most other areas of their existence seemed unmanageable or anxiety producing.
Among adolescents, a high risk group for eating disorders, the impulse to take control by managing one’s weight is quite prevalent. One of the driving forces behind this is the basic fact that adolescence is a naturally stressful and emotionally stressful time in their mental and physical development. The anxiety of this period of growth is only exacerbated by peer pressure and a spate of media imagery that promotes a “thin is in” aesthetic. Many teenagers are teased or ostracized if they don’t live up to the impossible body images as represented by celebrities and models. As a result they will often engage in weight management strategies in order to be accepted by their peers. Often their attempts will result in the quick, generally dangerous, weight loss that earns compliments from those in their social circle. This positive affirmation of their physical appearance only serves to reinforce their efforts to control the way they look despite the ultimate unhealthiness of their behavior.
In family units where there is emotional turmoil, individuals will often cope with the maelstrom of negative feelings by developing eating disordered behavior. Often this behavior is a desperate attempt to establish personal identity, please one’s parents, or release bottled up emotions. The troubled family unit must be addressed through therapeutic means that manage both the individual suffering from an eating disorder and the interpersonal dynamics that aggravate the situation.
No matter what the underlying issue or reasons for persistent disordered eating behavior, a treatment program that addresses both the emotional and physiological aspects of the disorder through individualized care is essential for a full and lasting recovery. Only then can one regain control of one’s life in a healthful and positive manner.