While eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder have historically been thought to be “women’s disorders”, over one million men are suffering from these afflictions in relative silence. My guess is that many more men and boys are struggling every day with an eating disorder than the numbers report. With stereotypes looming about women feeling pressure to live up to societal beauty standards and using food to cope with stress, trauma, and anxiety, men who experience the very same struggles may be left isolated, feeling shameful and confused. With the increased numbers of eating disorders around the United States, one positive aspect is illuminated: more education, advocacy, and support is beginning to become available for men struggling with eating disorders.
Beginning March 29th, a new and open support group is starting at the Eating Disorder Foundation. Running every Thursday from 5:30-7pm, this group is sponsored by the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD) and is FREE and open to men who are struggling with any type of disordered eating or body image struggles. Facilitators Kate Daigle, MA, NCC and Clinton Nunnally, MA, LPC, are hopeful that this new group will open doors for men to find support in recovery from eating disorders.
What is different about eating disorders in men and women? Not a whole lot. In a clip I found produced in Britain to shed light on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, one of the men talks about how criteria for anorexia nervosa includes amenorrhea (the loss of a female’s monthly cycle) and that he sees this as a gender bias against men who may be dealing with the same disorder. You can view the clip here:
According to the online eating disorder recovery site Something Fishy,
“The most common element surrounding ALL Eating Disorders, including Eating Disorders in Males, is the inherent presence of a low self esteem”.
Men are dealt with pressure to live up to standards, ideals, and stereotypes, just as women are. The image of the strong, muscular male underwear model or the skinny, fashionable hipster affect the way that men perceive themselves. They may be influenced by “what women want” in a mate and conform themselves to fit the desired ideal. In addition, men are supposed to be “the strong, stoic, protector” — one who doesn’t show or admit to emotions — based on Western standards, and this can create a great deal of pressure to fit all expected roles. Men, just as women, can control food in order to try to cope with feelings, or can feel out of control with food as a way of expressing underlying struggles.
We still have a ways to go to understanding how we can best support men in their recovery from eating disorders. I think the first step is admonishing the shame that is often attached to eating disorders. Shame is released by expressing it, addressing it, and letting it go. Here are additional resources for men struggling with eating disorders and for their families and loved ones:
Men With Eating Disorders Often Overlooked (a Talk of the Nation special audio report)
Men Get Eating Disorders Too (a non-profit to raise awareness about EDs in men)
I am hopeful that with these resources and with research to come, that men will not feel so alone or shameful about struggling with an eating disorder and that they might break the silence and search for treatment. If you know of any males who might benefit from the free support group please contact Kate Daigle at (720) 340-1443 or the Eating Disorder Foundation.
I am often asked: “What is recovery? How do I know when I am recovered from my eating disorder?”. With these perplexing concepts, there is no single correct answer. Recovery from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or any other type of disordered eating is individualized and unique for each person. This special journey is what makes recovery from eating disorders both challenging and rewarding: during recovery, we each learn tools and embellish our strengths that will guide us to a life of balance and wellness for many years to come. We also may slip and stumble a few times during this journey. But staying the course is the key to sustained recovery.
Today, I’d like to shed some light on what to do once you have come to realize that you are “recovered” or “in recovery” from an eating disorder. Again, this is my perception — my feelings about my own recovery. They may help others, they may not. Take what helps. I am safe in assuming that the majority of those in recovery will agree that eliminating destructive and self-harming behaviors is a central key to recovery (behaviors such as bingeing, purging, restricting, over-exercising, cutting, and others). While it is normal to have occasional slip-ups of behaviors while working to find security in recovery, the true definition of recovery must involve a cessation of behaviors. Behaviors such as those listed above are symptoms of a deeper psychological issue. When working to find peace and wellness from behaviors, the root of the issue must be defined and nourished. When this is done, or is “in the process” of being uncovered, harmful behaviors will naturally cease because they will not be needed as a coping mechanism any longer.
One of my favorite quotes I heard recently by Cheri Huber reminded me of the complexity of recovery:
“Having an attachment ripped from deep in our being does not feel kind. Yet when it is gone, when the wound is healing, we can see that the process was one of pure compassion.” ~Cheri Huber
Eating disorders are like an attachment. They are like a relationship. They will never abandon us, deny us, leave us, or disagree with us. We can always rely on them. This is why it is so challenging to let them go — for all of the pain they have caused us, they have also satiated an inherently untended need. I interpreted this quote to mean that when we have our eating disorder taken away from us — whether it was of our own initiative or not — there is pain. The beginning stages of recovery are often the most excruciating; it can feel like ripping off a band-aid and exposing an open wound. Sometimes, it is too painful to bear, and we feel we need to continue using our behaviors until we are stronger in coping. When we sit with the feelings under the eating disorder, when we begin to heal, we can notice that giving ourselves compassion is one of the biggest keys in maintaining a solid recovery.
Here are a few ideas that might help in continuing to deepen your commitment to recovery:
1.) Define what the underlying struggles are, and always keep those in your awareness. This may come in the form of anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties or remnants from a traumatic event. You do not need to focus your awareness on these directly all the time, but tuck them into your consciousness so that you can be notified when you might need to cope with them in a healthier way.
2.) Remember what you have achieved. Again, this needs to be in balance — don’t re-traumatize yourself by vividly placing yourself back into what it was like to be in the eating disorder, but reflect on the steps you have taken, the victories you have obtained, and the strength you have deepened within yourself. Sometimes when I am feeling down, I summon up my gratitude for my own recovery and that I got myself there.
3.) Connect with community. It is always therapeutic to be part of a community that understands and supports you through your recovery. Recovery can be a life-long process in stages, and you may have different needs as you take steps down the road. This can come in the form of joining writing or poetry groups, if it is healing for you to write about your recovery. You also might participate in volunteer activities with local eating disorder support centers. In Denver, the Eating Disorder Foundation offers many volunteer opportunities or classes you can take and expand your horizons in their new support center “A Place of Our Own”.
This is only the beginning of a list of ideas to maintain recovery. What are some of your ideas? Remember always that the journey is challenging at times, but there is hope for a full, sustained, and healthy recovery from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.
Today, nearing the end of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I am pleased to offer a guest post from Lauren Bailey, a freelance writer who has an interest in eating disorders and psychological complexes:
Understanding Disorders Comorbid with Eating Disorders
Eating disorders and those who suffer from them have always had misleading and misunderstood coverage in the media. The public image of anorexia is often simplistic and reductive—we have an idea of most people with anorexia as teen girls with self-esteem and body issues who have developed their disorder in response to media glorification of extreme thinness. While this is certainly part of the issue that exacerbates eating disorders, there’s so much variety to the disorder that ascribing one culprit as the source is downright disingenuous.
Although there are many people who suffer from an eating disorder alone, it’s very common for a sufferer to have additional psychological disorders as well. In fact, almost all psychological disorders have the potential for what is called “comorbidity”—having two or more disorders at the same time. Advancement in the study of comorbidity has helped many suffering from various disorders to receive equal, across-the-board treatment when in the past, one disorder was treated and, still, the sufferer suffered.
In terms of eating disorders, the most typically comorbid disorders are anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Just as with eating disorders, many of these other disorders do not have a single source or cause. More often than not, genetics plays a large role. While many who suffer from depression or anxiety develop the disorder in response to a specific set of traumas, there’s really no telling why you or a loved one may suffer from a string of separate disorders that can affect your entire life.
With obsessive compulsive disorder, those who suffer from a comorbid eating disorder will be very particular about their eating behaviors. Many will ritualize eating to an extreme extent. According to an OCD Chicago article:
“…anorexic individuals are much more likely to have a predisposition to acquiring anorexia nervosa from pre-existing OCD and in fact, almost 37% of anorexic patients have OCD. According to Yaryura-Tobias the cerebral functioning and the primitive brain which contains the basal ganglia, is in particular, related to motor compulsive behaviors…The true manifestation behind the compulsive ritualistic behaviors, tendencies and excessive thought processes are a result of a combination of higher cortical decision making melding with the primitive brain’s compulsive motor movements.”
Although OCD and eating disorders are the most closely related, other disorders mentioned above can impede full treatment for the patient suffering from comorbid ED. PsychCentral cites a study which found that about 14% of people with bipolar disorder have a co-existing eating disorder. And a study published on the National Institutes of l Health website notes that many eating disorder patients have reported a variety of childhood anxiety symptoms before the onset of bulimia or anorexia as young adults.
In the final analysis, the growing body of research on disorders comorbid with EDs demonstrates the importance of anyone suffering from ED to be fully assessed by a trained professional. If there are other unusual or bothersome symptoms or behaviors exhibited in conjunction with eating behaviors, it’s essential to bring up with your doctor the possibility of a disorder hiding underneath the ED to get the full treatment you or a loved one deserves.
This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, who regularly writes for accredited online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: blauren99 @gmail.com.