An estimated 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by an eating disorder with 400 new cases each year resulting in 80 deaths annually (Vision for Change 2006). Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are serious mental health problems more common in women than in men.
You may be diagnosed with an eating disorder if your eating habits threaten your health and happiness or threaten the health and happiness of the people who care for you.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These affect about 2% of adult females and some men. Both are serious mental health problems and anyone experiencing them needs a great deal of help and understanding.
People with anorexia nervosa don’t eat enough, usually because they feel that their problems are caused by what they look like. They think that they appear fat even though they may look slim or even painfully thin to others. Their morale becomes low and their health can be seriously affected. Because they are not eating enough they may develop a number of physical problems including poor circulation, brittle bones and hair loss, as well as kidney disease.
People with bulimia nervosa can’t stick to a healthy eating pattern. They tend to binge, that is, eat a lot at once. This makes them feel guilty and out of control so they then panic and punish themselves by starving, making themselves sick, taking laxatives or over-exercising. This can lead to a number of physical problems including tooth decay, constipation and intestinal damage, as well as heart and kidney disease. Tell-tale signs of bulimia nervosa include making excuses to avoid eating in company or rushing to the lavatory after a meal.
Eating disorders usually have underlying causes. For example, if you are a teenager, hormone changes and lack of confidence, or problems such as bullying or difficulties with schoolwork, can trigger the conditions. Refusing or bingeing on food may make you feel you have some control over your life.
Some people attribute eating disorders to media and fashion. It is fashionable in western culture to be slim. This is not possible for everyone as we are naturally all different shapes and sizes. People with eating disorders very often feel that they can only ever be happy or successful if they can be more like images portrayed in the media.
There are a number of self-help books available in the shops. You can use these on your own, with a friend or with help from your GP or practice nurse. These books can be very helpful in describing strategies for improving your eating habits. They are generally written by medical experts but draw on the experience of people who have eating disorders.
Some people find that these books are a useful first stage in getting help. They can teach you about some of the ways of dealing with your eating disorder and they can also get you used to reading about or discussing problems which you have previously kept completely to yourself.
Help From Carers
If someone you care about has an eating disorder, or is starting to show some of the symptoms, it is important that you let them know you are available for any help or support they ask for. You can offer suggestions, such as reading about the condition or joining a self-help group, but they have to make the decisions or their fear of being controlled will increase.
Help From A Doctor
The first stage for many people with an eating disorder will be to talk to their family doctor (GP). Your doctor may not be an expert in treating eating disorders, but he/she will be able to assess any physical problems resulting from your eating disorder and can also help you to contact specialist eating disorder services.
The most successful treatment for eating disorders in the longer term may be by talking to a specialist who can help with your emotional needs and can help you take control of your eating. ‘Talking treatments’ link to a-z such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are generally considered to be the most effective way of treating eating disorders because they deal with the deeper emotional issues rather than simply with the obvious problems.
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Physical activity is good for your body but it’s great for your mind too. Research has shown that exercise releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good – boosting your self-esteem, helping you concentrate as well as sleep, look and feel better. Not bad for something we can quite easily do for free!
Being active doesn’t have to mean taking out an expensive gym membership, jogging at 5am or sporting lycra. There are so many ways to be active and they can all help to improve your mental health.
Taking part in physical activities can be a great way to meet people. They can also offer us the chance of taking a well-deserved break from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Leading an active life can help to improve your feelings of self-worth and foster confidence. Taking part in a form of exercise that you really enjoy can give you a goal to aim for and a sense of purpose.
A few benefits of exercise are:
- less tension, stress and mental fatigue
- a natural energy boost
- improved sleep
- a sense of achievement
- focus in life and motivation
- less anger or frustration
- a healthy appetite
- better social life
- having fun
- Work out what time you have available
- Choose something that fits into your busy schedule
- Alternatively, re-jig commitments to make room for some physical activity
- Will you need support from friends and family?
- Will your active lifestyle have an impact on others in your life?
- Are there any costs involved, if so, what you can do to make it affordable?
Which activity works for you?
- Is there a particular part of your body you want to exercise?
- Do you need to be more physically active at home?
- Do you want a change of scene?
- Would you like a structured activity that someone else has organised?
It can be a bit scary making changes to your life. Most people get anxious about trying something new. Practical and emotional support from friends, family and experts really does help. The following tips might be useful for you:
I’m afraid of failing?
Start with a beginners’ class then move on to the advanced group. Set realistic targets – start your new running schedule with a 1km walk or jog, then increase gradually.
I Don’t Have The Money?
Many councils offer discounted rates at gyms and leisure centres. Alternatively, choose an activity that is cheaper or free.
I Suffer From Social Anxiety?
Ask a friend to go along with you. If you are uncomfortable using communal changing rooms, or with the clothing you need to wear, leisure centre staff may have a solution. Otherwise try a single-sex gym or exercise class.
How Do I Get To A Class If I Don’t Have A Car?
People at your activity class may give you a lift, alternatively walk or cycle there. If you are eligible, use your council dial-and-ride service. However you travel, always think how you will stay safe.
Starting Something New Overwhelms Me?
If life is getting on top of you, talk with your GP about how you feel before you get active. GPs can prescribe an exercise scheme where you are given free or discounted access to a range of leisure facilities for a period of time.
What If I Stray From My Exercise Goals?
Don’t worry, there’s always an opportunity to pick up where you left off. Starting and staying active can be challenging but once you get going, there are plenty of rewards.
It’s Cold And Dark Outside?
When the clocks change for winter that evening bike ride might not be so appealing – or safe. Try creating a winter exercise plan that involves an indoor activity.
I Don’t Have The Energy Right Now?
Not all of us leap out of bed full of beans and ready for exercise. Work with your energy highs and lows. Accept that some days it’s best to take a break.
What If I Get Sick Or Become Injured?
Always ease back into your exercise routine – take advice from your GP if you need to. If an injury is going to be an on-going problem, switch to a more suitable activity.
Keep An Exercise Record
As well as noting what you do, record how you feel. It can be a good way to remember the ups. Work out how you’ll avoid repeating the downs.
Setting goals to measure progress might motivate you, such as:
- Use a cycle computer – look to improve your average speed
- Push in an extra stomach crunch at circuit training
- Use a pedometer to measure how far you walk each day
- Swim an extra length
Met Your Original Goal?
If your original motivation was to complete a challenge, like a fun run or a sponsored mountain climb, set your sights on a new event. You could join a new running club or rambling group. Perhaps there is a cause you’d like to fundraise for? There’s always a challenge out there if you’re willing to accept it.
Get Ireland Active for comprehensive information and advice on getting active:
Healthy Ireland Brochure – a framework for improved health and wellbeing in Ireland 2013-2025:
Download Mental Health Foundations free Let’s Get Physical Booklet:
New Years Resolution: This podcast looks at how exercise benefits both your mental health as well as physical health and teaches you some techniques to help you create and stick to a programme of regular exercise.
Exercise and Mental Health: This podcast is narrated by Jonty Heaversedge, one of the BBC’s Street Doctors. Jonty explains how everyone can look after their mental health using exercise.