Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy looks like a pyramid, with each level building on the one below it. The very bottom, basic need a person must fulfill is entitled the “physiological needs.” A component within the physiological needs is food, i.e. eating. So, this may pose a thought for some: Why, if food were available, not scarce, would this basic need in life be so hard for some people to act upon?
This leads us to the question: What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder, as defined by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), includes “extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.”
Growing up in our society with social media, there are subliminal messages — or just straight in your face messages — about diets, healthy eating, clean eating, body image, etc. that will influence how someone perceives their value and worth.
Although this perception of the ideal body type and self-worth are components of eating disorders, as a therapist who works with eating disorder patients, I like to explain that an eating disorder is more than that. I like to explain how it is a maladaptive coping skill. What does that mean exactly?
Well, imagine someone standing in the rain and holding up an umbrella. The umbrella is protecting him or her from getting wet. That umbrella is the eating disorder. The rain is the anxiety, depression, trauma history, stress, etc. The way one can protect her- or himself from feeling those uncomfortable feelings or thinking those uncomfortable thoughts is by thinking about what the eating disorder wants. The eating disorder focuses all of the attention on food and body image instead.
When going in to treatment, people forego the eating disorder behaviors; they put away the umbrella. They can start to feel the uncomfortable feelings and can start thinking about the uncomfortable thoughts that may have been suppressed, but that is okay. The emotions, negative thoughts, and distress are what need to be worked through and processed. Just like the rain, those negative emotions, negative thoughts, and distress will go away with time and with practice of healthy coping skills (a brand new raincoat). There is an anonymous quote that says:
“Everybody wants happiness, nobody wants pain, but you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain.”
Treatment is available for people struggling with eating disorders. Recovery is possible. The evidence-based treatments that help with eating disorder recovery are cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and exposure therapy. Another component that is imperative for recovery is seeing a dietician who will provide an individualized meal plan that consists of all the food groups — yes, all of the food groups — because everything is okay to eat in moderation. Medication may be needed, but everyone’s treatment should be individualized.
Reflections Eating Disorders Treatment Center is one treatment program that treats each patient individually, with an interdisciplinary team of a psychiatrist, therapist, expressive therapist, internist, dietician, and nurses for each patient. The daily therapies at this program include meal monitoring and coaching, exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, expressive therapy; and nutrition, medical, and pharmacological education therapies.
You may be asking: How do I know if I have or someone I know has an eating disorder?
Look to behaviors and thoughts.
Are you or someone you know restricting? Eating less and less food? Not eating? Feeling hungry and may want to eat more, but your mind won’t let you? Are you bingeing? Eating copious amounts of food even past the point of feeling full? Mindlessly eating; not even tasting the food? Are you purging? Over exercising? These are some behaviors that raise a red flag that an eating disorder could be present.
How much is it interfering or impacting your life? Is there a voice in your head saying to you “do not eat that,” “you have to exercise even if you are sick,” “you don’t deserve to eat,” or making you feel bad for eating or enjoying what you are eating? This little voice in the back of your head either yelling or whispering not to enjoy things, or making food, exercise, and body image a priority over anything else, is the source of the thoughts that raise a red flag. Those thoughts are called your ED (Eating Disorder) thoughts. These are the thoughts that make this basic need in life, in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, almost impossible and intolerable to satisfy. Without food — without this basic need being fulfilled in life — the body and brain cannot function to their maximum potential, and life cannot be lived to the fullest extent.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder reach out to the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237, or feel free to call a treatment center near you. If you want more information or would like to inquire about admission to Reflections Eating Disorders Treatment Center please contact the intake coordinator at: 703-538-2886.