With so many of us getting stressed out every day, it should come as no surprise that that stress can eventually get the better of us and affect our general health.
Our minds and bodies are in constant motion, moving between relationships, careers, school and home. When this cycle of activity becomes too much to handle, stress can become a problem. Destructive behavioral and emotional patterns can result from unhealthy coping mechanisms in those prone to disordered eating.
Realising that you or someone you love has adopted habits that are consistent with an eating disorder can be scary, and it can be hard to know what to do in that situation. But even though it can be a highly sensitive topic, it’s best to raise the issue as soon as possible.
Improved self esteem and confidence are a big part of recovery, alongside physical recovery and an improved attitude towards food. If the person suffering from the eating disorder is able to accept they have a problem early on, they are more likely to make a full recovery.
How Are Eating Disorders and Stress Connected?
We can’t avoid stress no matter how hard we work at it. And unfortunately, stress can quickly lead to increased emotions and vulnerability in those at risk of developing eating disorders.
There are lots of different types of eating disorders, but the two most common are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia. Eating disorders can also be ‘atypical’. A patient can be very unwell without meeting the full criteria for a specific condition.
Episodes of binge eating, food restriction and purging are among the impulsive actions that stress can cause in someone with an eating disorder. Importantly, this isn’t just a one-way relationship. The mental stress someone is under can be exacerbated by an eating disorder and the severe physical impact it has on the body. This can develop into a vicious cycle where stress feeds the eating disorder and the eating disorder feeds back into the stress.
Stress levels can easily be raised by constantly worrying about weight and eating, which in turn can lead to depression, worry and low self-esteem. Further destructive behaviours can come about as a result of the secrecy and loneliness often associated with disordered eating. In order to hide their disorder, many people will maintain an “everything is ok” attitude or act overly happy. Stress and anxiety levels can increase as the struggle to hide the problem becomes more difficult.
I Don’t Want My Child to Have This Problem: What Can I Do?
Things like making negative comments about people’s weights and appearances, even if these comments are not targeted at your child, can quickly be internalised. In many cases, a child can develop an unhealthy relationship to food and body weight as a direct result of the attitude of their parents, even if the parents are unaware that they have a particular attitude in the first place.
While eating disorders induced by stress are perhaps more common in adults, teenagers and even children are often vulnerable to developing eating disorders and do experience stress if they are worried about their grades, bullies, part-time jobs or family discord. If food is a touchy subject in your household, the following tips might make things easier.
- Whatever your mood, attempt to keep conversations light and enjoyable at dinner.
- Just move on if a meal doesn’t go well – tomorrow is another day!
- Try to make meal plans with your child that you both agree to.
- Ask your child to set the table or wash up if they start to get over involved in the various healthy and unhealthy ingredients while you’re cooking. This will allow them to feel proud for helping you cook, without obsessing over how healthy or unhealthy their meal is.
- Avoid discussing weight and appearance at any time, but especially at the dinner table.
Improving Your Situation
The stress that can exacerbate or cause an eating disorder needs to be dealt with using healthy coping skills and problem-solving abilities. Your actual situation – what’s happening around and to you – is not always something you can control. But you can diffuse some of the stress you are experiencing if you try to see your stressors as challenges rather than threats and change the way you respond to them.
Importantly, if a stressor is a challenge that you yourself cannot overcome, the best thing to do is ask for help from someone who can overcome it.
If you want to better control your situation, you can try using a few easy stress management techniques.
We become physically and mentally drained more quickly when our stress levels are raised, and process information differently from usual. Taking the time to clear your mind each way is a great way to stay calm and collected.
Focus on how you feel, and be kind to yourself. Breathe in deeply, hold for a few seconds, then slowly breathe out. Try not to give anxiety, unkind thoughts or worries any more brainspace than they deserve. Try to make one or more calming strategy a daily habit, such as…
- Physical activity.
- Emotional honesty – admit when you’re experiencing a negative emotion.
Working through Your Emotions
Each day we deal with a range of different stressors, but we can mitigate their impact by changing how we feel about them. Asking yourself if something really needs to cause you stress is a simple exercise that can make a big difference. Other approaches include…
- Thinking positively and not blaming yourself for negative events.
- Finding the right name for the exact emotion you’re feeling.
- Allowing yourself to feel your emotions (provided they aren’t harmful).
- Mindfulness (noticing your emotions).
For more information about eating disorders, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Anorexia which hopes to expel the myths and stereotypes that exist about Anorexia and help you to understand the true meaning of Anorexia – above and beyond those age-old explanations that only ever scratch the surface. Need2Know also have some great books about children’s nutrition, food for health and Stress. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, caring for a friend or just curious, we have all the information you need!