Know about... eating distress

Eating is a part of everyday life. We do it, not only to sustain life, but because for most people it is a very pleasurable activity. But, we all have different attitudes towards food. Some people eat more, some less. Many struggle to reach a healthy weight by losing pounds or stones, others battle to gain weight.

For many people (young women in particular), however, the relationship with food is all encompassing. Thoughts and feelings about eating, weight gain and body image often prevail in every aspect of their lives, making everyday activities difficult to manage. This booklet aims to give you an initial understanding of eating distress. What is it? How can people learn to cope? Where can you go for support?

What is eating distress?

Eating distress is something, which very often people begin to experience during their teenage years. Whilst it most commonly affects women, one in ten people who experience eating problems are men.

For many, problems with food and body image arise out of a deep personal and emotional conflict. There are many suggested explanations for the causes of eating distress and the following provides some of the most common themes:

  • Control - Eating difficulties often emerge as an expression of control in a person's life. For some, it can be very satisfying to know that through their dieting and exercising efforts they have lost 2 or 3lbs. Saying no to food may seem like the only way to express your feelings or exert influence in society.
  • Societal pressures - The western image of small breasts and slim hips continually reinforces the desire, even pressure in women to attain this idealised figure.
  • Growing up -The responsibilities and consequences of growing can be frightening and, for some, are translated into a fear of getting fat. Staying thin and avoiding the development of physical features such as breasts and larger hips may seem like an effective means of avoiding adulthood.
  • Life events - People who experience eating distress are very often high achievers, often students who also have low self esteem and lack of self worth. High levels of anxiety can make people particularly vulnerable to stressful situations, such as exams, coursework deadlines and relationships.

A person's relationship with food, eating and body image can be difficult, often impossible to define, however, the most common expressions of eating distress are anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

  • Anorexia Nervosa - People with anorexia control their food intake to one extent or another, whether it is by ensuring that any food or drink digested is low calorie, e.g. vegetables, fruit, diet drinks and black coffee. For some, the fear and anxiety associated with gaining weight is often so great that they may go through periods of total starvation. Additionally, many people will attempt to burn off calorie intake through excessive amounts of exercise. Early intervention is vital, since this can potentially be a life threatening disease.
  • Bulimia Nervosa - This particular expression of eating distress is characterised by a seemingly chaotic lifestyle, whereby the individual attempts to incorporate regular episodes of bingeing and purging into their everyday life. Some will go long periods without eating anything and then experience an overwhelming urge to eat extraordinary amounts of food, then going on to self-induced vomiting.

What happens to someone with eating distress?

Whether a person starves themselves, makes themselves sick, uses laxatives or diuretics or exercises excessively, people with eating distress may experience a range of psychological and physical problems which can be life threatening. These can include:

  • cessation of periods
  • severe weight loss
  • low blood pressure (causing dizziness and fainting)
  • heart, bowel and kidney damage
  • growth of 'baby-like' hair
  • electrolyte imbalance
  • tooth decay
  • swollen fingers
  • poor sleep pattern
  • anxiety/depression/self harm
  • poor concentration and attention span
  • seizures

What can you do?

The first step is to recognise and accept that you or someone you know has an eating-related problem. Eating distress can be life threatening, however, with intervention, most people recover quite successfully.

Where can I get support?

Talking to someone may sound like an obvious answer, but many people find this very hard to do. Talk to someone you feel you can confide in, may be a fellow student or one of the teaching staff. It is difficult to share this kind of information with anyone, but it is an important starting point. On the other hand, you may be concerned about worrying them or think that they will not understand, in which case, you may want to consider seeking support from someone who is not directly involved in your life.

The University Counselling Service has a number of full-time counsellors who will help you to understand and make sense of your feelings. This service provides an informal and relaxed opportunity for you to talk as little or as much as you like in a confidential environment. Make an appointment over the phone on 01642 342277 or call into the Student Centre.

You can talk confidentially to the Student Health Adviser and the University Chaplain who will listen and offer help and support. They can also act as the bridge between yourself and an outside support agency if you want further help. To make an appointment just call into the Student Centre or phone 01642 342277.

If you are living in halls, you can also talk confidentially to your sub warden. Your GP can be a useful first point of contact. In some cases, a GP will refer you for more specialised help and support. There are several self-help groups in the Teesside region who will provide support and help you to identify with people with similar experiences. This can also be a good way to make contact with other agencies.

Help lines can be a very useful point of contact, particularly for someone in crisis. This may enable someone to explore other means of support. You can contact the Eating Disorders Association in Norwich on 01603 621414.

Assertiveness training may enable someone to discover and explore alternative ways of expressing their feelings, other than through food and exercise.