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What is Anorexia Nervosa? - Definition, Symptoms, Treatment and Prognosis

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  • 0:05 Anorexia
  • 2:46 Symptoms
  • 4:54 Treatment & Prognosis
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson explores what anorexia nervosa is and why it is so dangerous. It covers common symptoms seen in children who may develop anorexia as well as what anorexia will do to those who suffer from it.

Anorexia

My family constantly belittles the cats we own. Why do we do this? 'Cause they're fat. Fat, fat, fat! Most cats are between 9 and 12 pounds, and ours are between 17 and 18. It's not that we overfeed them, although I'm sure the amount we feed them has something to do with it.

Why am I talking about fat cats when I should be talking about the very serious disorder of anorexia? Because the same issues that inspire us to tell our cats that they are fat is at play when nefarious thinking and behaviors push a person to starvation. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by:

  • Restricting of energy intake to the point of significantly reduced body mass
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, leading to behaviors to avoid weight gain
  • Disturbance in perception of their own weight or shape

These are behaviors and thoughts taken to a pathological level. While the exact causes are not known, there are several aspects that come together which help paint a partial picture. The biggest is, of course, culture and the body expectations placed on people. The use of photo manipulation has resulted in ads with images of people who couldn't function at the body mass they're at. This unrealistic expectation warps a person's mind and their own expectations.

Why did I bring up the cats in the beginning? Because culture is reinforced by people and ideas. Those suffering from anorexia may come from families or peer groups where weight and body shape were of particular importance. This can warp an individual, pushing him or her to avoid eating foods and fearing gaining weight and becoming fat. Oh, wait! Those are the criteria for anorexia, aren't they?

Can you imagine what might go on in the mind of a child who is told that he or she is fat? Maybe that's why over half of 9- and 10-year-old females said they would be happier if they were thinner or on a diet; or about 42% of first through third grade females want to be thinner. So, this goes beyond just what culture is telling us. This has to do with a level of reinforcement found only amongst peers and families.

Let's look at symptoms of anorexia with a focus on individuals before they reach a pathological level. We should also look at the treatment of this disorder and what might happen if someone continues without help for their anorexia.

Symptoms

The final symptoms of anorexia include an emaciated form, difficulty fighting off infections, and eventual death. I don't think you need me to tell you that someone who is 5 foot 4 and less than 100 pounds is too small and that when you can count every bone in their body, they're probably too thin.

What you need to know is the beginning. Early symptoms of anorexia are things you would expect, like selective eating, fear of gaining weight, distortion in body image, and compulsive exercise. These are common early symptoms in individuals as young as six years old. They show the precursors to more pathological thinking and behaviors. An interesting note about body distortion - those with anorexia can see when other people are too thin but have difficulty seeing that they are; it is like they always are looking at a funhouse mirror of themselves.

As these thoughts increase in pathology and severity, the individual may begin to act on them. Starvation, excessive exercise, and intense fear of gaining weight are the next symptoms. Here, the starvation may be an outright refusal to eat anything above an arbitrarily chosen limit on calories. For example, in one case I am aware of, a young woman kept track of every item she ate and tabulated the calories. As you read through her day-to-day consumption, you would see the number of sugar packets she would put into her tea would increase as her body began to crave calories. This careful tabulation also revealed an intense and overriding fear of becoming fat.

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