Anorexia Nervosa

What is it?

What are the symptoms?

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by:

  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
  • Lack of menstruation among girls and women
  • Extremely restricted eating.

Many people with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight, even when they are clearly underweight. Eating, food, and weight control become obsessions. People with anorexia nervosa typically weigh themselves repeatedly, portion food carefully, and eat very small quantities of only certain foods. Some people with anorexia nervosa may also engage in binge-eating followed by extreme dieting, excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and/or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas.

Some who have anorexia nervosa recover with treatment after only one episode. Others get well but have relapses. Still others have a more chronic, or long-lasting, form of anorexia nervosa, in which their health declines as they battle the illness.

Other symptoms may develop over time, including:

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart
  • Brain damage
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility.

CBT can help!

Cognitive-Behavioural therapy (CBT) is considered by doctors to be the treatment of choice for people with anorexia. With the support of decades’ worth of research, CBT is a time-limited and focused approach that helps a person understand how their thinking and negative self-talk and self-image can directly impact their eating and negative behaviours.

CBT is the gold standard for treating anorexia.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy will often focus on identifying and altering dysfunctional thought patterns, attitudes and beliefs, which may trigger and perpetuate the person’s restrictive eating. A researcher in the early 1980s by the name of Chris Fairburn developed a specific model of cognitive-behavioural therapy to help in the treatment of anorexia, using the traditional foundations of CBT therapy — helping a person understand, identify and change their irrational thoughts (the “cognitive” part), and helping a person make the changes real through specific behavioural interventions (such as promoting health eating behaviours through goal setting, rewards, etc.).

Cognitive-behavioural therapy is time-limited, meaning that a person with anorexia will go into treatment for a specific period of time with specific goals in mind. The typical session with a therapist is one hour long, every week.