Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Throughout history, food has influenced the way in which humans have built civilizations, cultures, and relationships with others and the environment. Millions of religious leaders, activists, politicians, educators, medical professionals, and individuals have dedicated immeasurable time and energy to healing world hunger and addressing medical issues related to food consumption and nutrition. In the last century, the western world has developed a new form of epidemic related to food in the form of eating disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
The latest scientific studies show that eating disorders are an important cause of physical and psychosocial morbidity in adolescent girls and young adult women; there has been an increase over two-fold in the prevalence of binge eating, purging (self-induced vomiting and/or laxative or diuretic misuse) and strict dieting or fasting for weight or shape control among both genders; and that men are displaying substantial body dissatisfaction closely associated with measures of eating pathology” (Hay, Mond, Buttner & Darby, 2008; Fairburn & Harrison, 2003; Olivardia, Pope, Borowiecki & Cohane, 2004). This suggests a need for improved methods of treatment for eating disorders. Disordered eating is an extremely complex condition and varies tremendously from type to type. For the nature and scope of this paper, I will be examining restrictive type eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, in which food intake is severely restricted in an attempt to keep weight low and remain thin. A general overview of some resources (mental, emotional, somatic, social, ecological, modified, and spiritual) that can be utilized in addressing this type of disordered eating, and how these resources could flow in a more balanced and sustainable way within our living systems, will be examined.
The causes and onsets of eating disorders are complex and vary across the intersectionalities of age, gender, race, nationality/ethnicity, geographic location, and socioeconomic status. Some factors that contribute to the development of disordered eating include sociocultural factors (media and peer influences), family factors (enmeshment and criticism), negative affect, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, cognitive and biological functioning, and coping mechanism for identity and personal control issues (Polivy & Herman, 2002). Because these factors are so deeply intertwined with one another, a major issue with treating eating disorders is finding a place to start addressing the issue. However, this also indicates the necessity for a systems-based approach to the effective treatment of eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders' first step to healing might be accessing relational resources.
Some relational resources that individuals might access include friends, family, treatment centers, hospitals or wellness centers, medical professionals, spiritual or religious professionals, and the internet. These resources are a good place to start for individuals with eating disorders because resistance to treatment and change is extremely strong for restrictive type eating disorders (Vitousek, Watson, & Wilson, 1998). Therefore, seeking other people and resources as support, encouragement, and accountability is suggested. Once relational resources are utilized in seeking treatment, internal resources can then be utilized within a therapy.
Eating disorders correlate with many mental and emotional conditions including anxiety, panic, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and extreme criticism of one’s body (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2017). The extreme dissatisfaction with one’s body, overwhelming fear of gaining weight, and dangerous attempts to make oneself thin, leads individuals to have detachment with one’s body. The internal mental, emotional, and somatic cues to nourish oneself are severely inhibited and ignored. Over time, this causes the individual to forget how to listen and trust the body and mind’s natural processes that inform an individual when to eat, how much to eat, and when proper nourishment has been reached. The conversation between mind and body informing the individual of pleasure, pain, dissatisfaction, and acceptance become severely skewed and illusory. A spiritual or deeper sense of purpose and self becomes hijacked by the sole purpose to lose weight and stay thin.
Some internal mental resources that an individual trying to heal an eating disorder could access might be meditation, mindfulness, reading books on recovery, talk therapy, art therapy, breathing practices, journaling, and guided imagery practices. These resources could help the individual combat the mental conditions associated with eating disorders in order to then progress further into treatment. Some internal emotional resources that could be accessed for healing include exploring and expressing one’s emotions in a therapeutic context, energy and healing work, and exploring dreams and repressed emotions. These emotional resources could benefit the individual by helping to re-define what healthy and supportive emotions are and how to regulate them in a manageable way.
The utilization of somatic resources can be tricky for persons with eating disorders. Since these restrictive eating disorders coincide with weight loss, they most often also correlate with over-exercising or obsessive exercising (Davis et al., 1997). Thus, it can be generally recommended that the five biological senses be used as safe somatic resources for healing. Accessing the senses can help individuals bring back awareness to the body and heal the intense dissociation from it caused by the eating disorder. Through these resources, individuals can begin to build a new relationship to their body and to the outside world. For individuals further along in their recovery, yoga, walking, and other physical activities practiced in a therapeutic manner could be positive somatic resources for healing.
Finally, some spiritual resources that can be accessed for healing could include religious activities, prayer, meditation, spiritual rituals, psychedelic therapy, and forming spiritual relationships to nature. Utilizing spiritual resources could be extremely significant in helping individuals recovering from eating disorders gain new meaning and purpose to their lives. Many studies show evidence supporting this including one from the Journal of Treatment and Prevention of Eating Disorders, stating “Pearson correlations revealed that improvements in spiritual wellbeing during treatment were significantly associated with positive gains in eating attitudes, less body shape concerns, and positive psychological and social functions” (Smith, Hardman, Richards, & Fischer, 2003).
Once relational and internal resources have been utilized in treatment, it could be suggested that individuals recovering from eating disorders then utilize external resources for continuing recovery and treatment. Some of these resources might include shifting from the triggering and negative social media resources that encourage and sustain eating disorders to more supportive and empowering sources such as recovery websites, body-positive social media, and recovery accountability web sites.
Once individuals have utilized relational, internal, and external resources for the sustainable recovery of eating disorders, they could then implement new knowledge, practices, and empowerment to social institutions for others suffering from the epidemic. This could be done through applying to work as a recovery counselor at an eating disorder treatment center, starting one’s own eating disorder coaching business, producing academic work and art that bring awareness to the issue of eating disorders, and participating in social activism for the eradication of eating disorders. Thus, bringing the flow of resources full circle through all the levels of human, social, and environmental systems. The interconnectedness of biological, social, and environmental influences is crystal clear in the epidemic of eating disorders. Therefore, the systems approach to treatment is suggested for improved treatment outcomes and sustainability within the eating disorder population.
Written by: Morgan Hopson, 2018
American Psychological Association. (2017). What are eating disorders? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are- eating -disorders
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