Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by persistent energy intake restriction, intense fear of gaining weight and disturbance in self perceived weight or shape. For some people, restricting their food and weight can be a way of controlling areas of life that feel out of their control and their body image can come to define their entire sense of self worth. It can also be a way of expressing emotions that may feel too complex or frightening such as pain, stress or anxiety.
The reasons behind the development of AN will differ from person to person. Known causes include genetic predisposition and a combination of environmental, social and cultural factors. Restrictive dieting and excessive exercise can be contributing factors to the onset of AN. Women and girls with AN may use dieting behaviour in a bid to achieve a culturally constructed thin ideal whereas men may over exercise and control their diet to achieve a muscular body.
It is commonly accepted that AN is more frequently diagnosed in females across the ages. However, recent population studies suggest that in adolescents, there are an equal number of males and females suffering from this illness.
A person with AN is unable to maintain what is considered to be a normal and healthy weight. They could also have lost a considerable amount of weight in a short period of time.
Even when people with AN are underweight, starved or malnourished they still possess an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight.
When someone has AN the amount of attention they place on their body image can be enormous. The person’s self worth can become entirely defined by the way they think they look. A person with AN can also develop a distorted view of their body. They may see themselves as overweight when in reality they are dangerously underweight.
There are two subtypes of AN, and both are very serious mental illnesses that require treatment.
People with this subtype place severe restrictions on the amount and type of food they consume. This can manifest in different ways including some or all of the following:
These restrictive behaviours around food can be accompanied by excessive exercise.
People with this subtype also place severe restriction on the amount and type of food they consume. In addition to this the person will display purging behaviour and may also engage in binge eating. Binge eating involves eating a large amount of food and feeling a ‘loss of control’. Purging behaviour involves self induced vomiting, or deliberately misusing laxatives, diuretics or enemas to compensate for eating food.
Having awareness about AN and its signs and symptoms can make a huge difference to the duration and severity of the illness. Seeking help at the first warning sign is much more effective than waiting until the illness is in full swing. If you or someone you know is exhibiting some or a combination of these signs it is vital to seek help and support as soon as possible.
Someone with AN may display any combination of the following warning signs.
Find out more about the warning signs
The risks associated with AN are severe and can be life threatening. They include:
Psychological treatment has been clinically proven to reduce the severity, impact and duration of AN. The long-term aims of psychological treatment for AN are to reduce risk and to encourage weight gain, normal eating and exercise behaviours, with full psychological and physical recovery as the ultimate goal.
Ideally, the treatment of people with AN are managed on an outpatient basis, with psychological treatment and physical monitoring provided by healthcare professionals, who will possess specialised knowledge in eating disorders.
Antidepressants (specifically selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors; e.g. SSRI) or antipsychotics can also be used to treat AN.
Please note: Medication should not be used as the sole or primary treatment for AN; rather, it should be used in conjunction with therapy appropriate for the treatment of AN.
Find out more about specific Treatment Approaches.
Yes. It is possible to recover from AN, even if you have been living with the illness for many years. The path to recovery can be long and challenging, however with the right team supporting you and a high level of commitment, recovery is achievable. Treatment for ANis available; seek help from a professional with specialised knowledge in eating disorders.
If you suspect that you or someone you know has AN, it is important to seek help immediately. The earlier you seek help the closer you are to recovery. While your GP may not be a specialist in eating disorders, they are a good ‘first base’ and can refer you to a practitioner with specialised knowledge in health, nutrition and eating disorders.
Find help in your local area.
The National Helpline provides free, confidential support for anyone.
Phone 1800 33 4673.
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Also check the related topics:Eating Disorders