Stress, an Eating Disorder, and Mental Health
A while back, I wrote about a child of 8 years old who was showing early signs of disordered eating behaviors. As noted at that time, the behavior was fueled by a father with his own poor relationship around food and a mother who is also victimized by his negative body and food talk. I’ve watching this child over the last year, hoping I was wrong, but knowing more and more that the signs I was seeing were none other than an eating disorder being nurtured and fed by self-hatred, stress, and a negative environment. Her organization of food has gotten more intense, as has her open disgust around whatever is on her plate. It’s not so much about being “fat” but more about her discernment around eating a growing number of “certain” foods.
There’s stress all around this kid: her father is impatient and fixated on his own weight and body image. Her mom is reacting to his actions by persistently apologizing when she eats, joining Weight Watchers, and choosing to ignore the cry for help at the dinner table. As a regular in their household, it’s been hard to watch and harder still not to say anything for fear of being shut out entirely. I’ve used my presence as an opportunity to change the dialogue when I can, but it’s hard speaking to a room full of deaf ears. I finally did say something when the negative talk was directed at me and as expected, my comment, despite coming from love, was met with a “Nah, I’m not worried about that.”
Stress is a huge culprit here. According to the Eating Recovery Center, “childhood stress is typically: personal, interpersonal, interfamilial, or global (a stress reaction to national or world news).”
- Age is not a factor: Children of all ages experience stress, though they may express it differently.
- Children are vulnerable.
- Children respond differently to the stress in their environment.
- Stress is cumulative. Adults aren’t the only one’s who can “only take so much.”
- Change is stressful. Even positive change. I am reminded here of reorganizing a room in my house and my son getting utterly overwhelmed even though the change was positive. Our nervous systems are indifferent to our whims and desire to pile on more and more and the fact that we all may have a different response is something to be noted and respected.
Parents and adults alike would be wise to open a dialogue with their kids about stress and one’s perceptions of how things are. In the case of my young eating disorder study, dad is never around and only available on weekends; when he is there, he’s impatient and obsessively exercising or on his computer—detached from everyone. This provides a huge source of stress for her and for the rest of her family. Unfortunately, this has been weaved into her negative self talk and commentary about her family and hinders her relationships with others and with food. She’s angry, stressed out, and starving herself in response.
What can we do? We can start with the following:
- Be an example of positive body talk.
- Talk to our kids. Be open and honest, but be loving.
- Eat mindfully. Turn off the TV. Make mealtime a place of solace and connection.
- Don’t talk about stressful subjects at the dinner table. In other words: keep it light.
- Don’t use food or eating as a means of punishment. (You’re going to bed without dinner).
- Encourage self-care and self-love: At dinner, ask each person to express one thing they are grateful for.
- Cook together. Show them that food isn’t the enemy.
- Go on hikes or family walks.
- Have family meetings. We do them council style in my house. It makes a world of difference.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help.
- Be honest with your therapist. They can’t help you if you hold back.
- Find a support group—being alone with your child or family is in crisis is too much for anyone.
- Take care of yourself so you can take care of those around you.
(Please note, certain behaviors are warning signs, but in combination and over time, they can become quite serious):
Behaviors specific to anorexia:
- Major weight loss (weighs 85% of normal weight for height or less)
- Skips meals, always has an excuse for not eating (ill, just ate with a friend, stressed-out, not hungry).
- Refuses to eat in front of others
- Selects only low fat items with low nutrient levels, such as lettuce, tomatoes, and sprouts.
- Reads food labels religiously; worried about calories and fat grams in foods.
- Eats very small portions of foods
- Becomes revolted by former favorite foods, such as desserts, red meats, potatoes
- May help with meal shopping and preparation, but doesn’t eat with family
- Eats in ritualistic ways, such as cutting food into small pieces or pushing food around plate
- Lies about how much food was eaten
- Has fears about weight gain and obesity, obsesses about clothing size. Complains about being fat, when in truth it is not so
- Inspects image in mirror frequently, weighs self frequently
- Exercises excessively and compulsively
- May wear baggy clothing or many layers of clothing to hide weight loss and to stay warm
- May become moody and irritable or have trouble concentrating. Denies that anything is wrong
- May harm self with cutting or burning
- Evidence of discarded packaging for diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics (water pills)
- Stops menstruating
- Has dry skin and hair, may have a growth of fine hair over body
- May faint or feel dizzy frequently
Behaviors specific to bulimia
- Preoccupation or anxiety about weight and shape
- Disappearance of large quantities of food
- Excuses self to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
- Evidence of discarded packaging for laxatives, diuretics, enemas
- May exercise compulsively
- May skip meals at times
- Teeth may develop cavities or enamel erosion
- Broken blood vessels in the eyes from self-induced vomiting
- Swollen salivary glands (swelling under the chin)
- Calluses across the joints of the fingers from self-induced vomiting
- May be evidence of alcohol or drug abuse, including steroid use
- Possible self-harm behaviors, including cutting and burning
If you notice even one of these, it’s time to address it. Talk to your daughter or son, talk to your doctor. If necessary, elicit the help of a treatment facility. In other words: Get help. Showing our kids that we care and are willing to stop our own negative behaviors in order to help them is invaluable. It’s a family problem, not an individual one.