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  • Dr Hafsa Tahir Shaikh

Unlocking the Path to Recovery: Understanding Anorexia Nervosa and Providing Support to a Loved One


“Anorexia is not a choice, it's a disease that takes over your life.”


Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness that affects millions of people worldwide. It is not simply a matter of vanity or a desire to be thin, rather it is a complex mental illness that affects a person's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, and a persistent restriction of food intake that leads to significantly low body weight. Moreover, it is often accompanied by physical and psychological symptoms, such as excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, body dysmorphia, and a preoccupation with food and weight, leading to the misuse of diet aids, laxatives, diuretics, and enemas. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, often using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives. No matter how much weight is lost, they continue to fear weight gain.


"Anorexia is not just about food, it's about feeling out of control.”


Despite its prevalence, many myths and misconceptions surrounding anorexia still exist, which can make it difficult for those who are struggling to seek help. For instance, one of the most pervasive myths about anorexia is that it is a lifestyle choice and that people with the condition simply choose not to eat. In reality, anorexia is a mental illness that affects the way a person thinks about their body and their relationship with food. Some people believe that anorexia only affects women, while others believe that it only affects young people. However, research suggests that up to 25% of people with anorexia are males, and the condition is prevalent in all age groups, with some people developing it later in life, often as a result of significant life changes or stressors. Additionally, while food plays a central role in anorexia, the disorder is more about extremely unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening coping mechanisms to emotional problems, and people with anorexia, often equate thinness with self-worth. Anorexia is actually a fairly common mental illness, however, because of the stigma and shame surrounding eating disorders, many people don't seek help.

The causes of anorexia nervosa are complex and multifaceted, with genetics, biology, environment, and psychology playing a great role. Some risk factors that contribute to the development of the disease include:

  • A history of dieting or weight loss attempts

  • Negative body image and a preoccupation with weight and appearance

  • Low self-esteem

  • Trauma or abuse

  • Perfectionism and high achievement orientation

  • Pressure to conform to societal ideals of beauty and thinness

If left untreated, anorexia nervosa can have numerous physical and psychological complications, from severe malnourishment, anemia, osteoporosis, electrolyte imbalance, and gastrointestinal, heart, and kidney problems, to depression, anxiety, and self-injurious/suicidal thoughts. Treating anorexia nervosa can be challenging, as it often involves addressing both the physical and psychological symptoms of the illness. Treatment options may include nutritional counseling and weight restoration, psychotherapy (including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and family-based therapy (FBT)), medications, or hospitalization in severe cases where medical complications are present.

It's important to note that recovery from anorexia nervosa is possible, but it is a journey that demands courage, endurance, and perseverance. It necessitates a combination of various therapies, coupled with the compassionate backing of a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, family, and friends.


Helping someone with anorexia nervosa can be a challenging and sensitive process, requiring patience. Here are some steps you can take to support a loved one who is struggling with the illness:

· First, educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about anorexia nervosa and its signs/symptoms. Understanding the illness can help you approach the situation with empathy and compassion, and also help you recognize the warning signs.

· Next, encourage treatment: Encourage your loved one to seek professional help. Offer to help them find a qualified healthcare professional who specializes in eating disorders. You can also offer to attend appointments with them or help them make phone calls and appointments.

· Support is key! Let your loved one know that you are there for them, and that you’ve got their back on their journey to recovery. Listen to them without judgment, and avoid criticizing their appearance or eating habits.

· Avoid triggers too. Try to stay away from situations or topics that may trigger your loved one's anxiety or negative thoughts about their body image. For example, avoid discussing weight or appearance, and refrain from commenting on their eating habits.

· Self-Care is important. Supporting and caring for someone with an eating disorder can be emotionally draining, so it's important to take care of yourself as well. Make sure you have a support system of your own, and take time to engage in self-care activities that help you de-stress and unwind.

· And finally, be patient: Recovery from anorexia nervosa is a long and challenging process, and progress may be slow. Be patient and understanding, and avoid putting pressure on your loved one to "get better" quickly. Celebrate the small victories and progress along the way. Your support and encouragement can make a significant difference in your loved one's recovery journey.


Overall, it is important for people to understand that anorexia nervosa is a serious and complex mental illness that requires compassionate and comprehensive treatment. By increasing awareness and understanding of the illness, we can work towards better support and care for those who are affected by it.

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