An eating disorder is a medical/psychiatric condition that consists of disordered eating patterns that cause significant psychological distress and leads to impairment in an individual’s life in areas such as personal relationships, academics, work, and/or social interactions. However, an eating disorder can also be thought of as a dysfunctional coping mechanism similar to other dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as alcohol and substance abuse. And while many individuals with an eating disorder may seem resistant to changing their behaviors, they usually wish they never had the ED to begin with.
Often, the general public and misinformed individuals believe that an ED is about one’s preoccupation with wanting to “look good” and a desire to be thin. This is akin to saying an alcoholic drinks because he is thirsty. An eating disorder numbs and preoccupies an individual’s thoughts to the point where there is an “escape” from reality. As a result, patients often lose connections with friends and family and suffer setbacks in work and academics.
An eating disorder takes the intangible emotional world that at times can make someone feel they have no control over, and refocuses their thoughts on more tangible things. One cannot pick-up and hold emotions. You cannot visually see emotions and they cannot be avoided. There are no numbers or units associated with emotions so one cannot measure them. People often feel they cannot control what emotions “come in,” and what emotions “go out.” The emotional aspect of stressors in life can often not be avoided. But with an ED one can look at foods, hold them, see them. They can measure calories or their weight and attempt to regulate those numbers. They can decide what food goes in, and even what comes out. They can avoid certain foods, events, picnics, and restaurants. There is no need to, nor time to, focus on the stressors in life that can create pressure. An ED alters how a person feels. They do not feel sad, they “feel fat.” A false perception is formed that happiness can be achieved by reaching their eating disorder goals. Frustration occurs because there is no true happiness when a goal is reached. And the cycle continues.
Still, an eating disorder, despite its harmful and even potentially lethal effects, serves a purpose: it acts as a coping tool. Granted, not a healthy one, but non-the-less, to the individual it is an escape from dealing with life stressors that cause pain to a person’s ego. An ED is a way to “self-medicate” just as alcohol, illicit drug use, gambling, sex, shopping addictions and other harmful behaviors are for others. The “side effects” of self-medicating with eating disorders are what makes them have the highest mortality rate (even greater than depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ect…) in all of psychiatry.