Food and eating is a normal and essential part of our lives and we grow up or develop through food and the many choices concerning it such as tastes, diets to improve health and perhaps particular habits such as being vegetarian. In essence we have a relationship with food.
When that relationship with food is damaging and not serving a mere desire to satisfy hunger is when patterns appear that use food to cope or deal with difficult feelings such as boredom, anxiety, anger, loneliness, feeling ashamed or sadness. Food then becomes a way of managing these painful situations and can feel as though it relieves the stresses of those painful feelings albeit temporarily.
What is happening though is that food is becoming entwined with strong emotions that are not getting expressed. Bottling up those emotions and feelings of unhappiness is not helpful and paradoxically although people say that they feel some amount of control over their lives by their eating disorder, by now the disorder has taken over control.
It is usually a combination of things that has allowed an eating disorder to flourish and take hold of a person’s life such as a bereavement, being bullied or abused, an upheaval in the family (such as divorce), long term illness or concerns over sexuality; life can feel pressured such as high academic expectations, family pressures and peer group pressures all affecting self-esteem and the ability to cope. Often there might be another family member, say a parent, whose attitude towards food influentially impacts the growing child.
Eating disorders are universal but there is a high tendency in women between 15 and 25 years old. There can also be links to self-harming, alcohol and drugs abuse.
One of the keys to dealing with eating disorders is being able to talk about the underlying feeling associated with them, feelings that have invariably been bottled up for a long time. It is rare that they go away by themselves; the counselling relationship seeks to support what is often despair, shame and a sense of not being good enough.