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Anorexia Nervosa: Introduction and Symptoms

Anorexia Nervosa

The term anorexia nervosa means ‘loss of appetite for nervous reasons’. However, the term is misleading, as most sufferers do keep an appetite for food, which they strictly attempt to control through starvation, over-exercising, vomiting and the excessive use of laxatives.
Anorexia nervosa seems to occur manly in women. Some studies suggest that female anorectics out number males by a ratio of 20:1, whilst others suggest a ratio of 10:1 (Fombonne 1995).

The disorder usually has its onset in adolescence between the ages of 12 & 18, the period between 14 & 16 being the most common (Hsu 1990). However, it can occur earlier or later. Lask & Bryant-Waugh (1992) have reported cases of the disorder in children as young as 8.
Estimates of incidence vary, but a study conducted in the US by Lewinsohn et al (1993) suggest that 4 in 1000 females may experience the disorder. In Britain, the figure is somewhat higher, with estimates ranging from 10 in 1000 to 40 in 1000 (Sahakian 1987) with around 70,000 people recognised as anorectic. It has been reported that in 5 – 15% of cases, anorexia nervosa is fatal.

Physical Symptoms

  1. Extreme weight loss in adults, failure to gain adequate weight in relation to growth in children& teenagers.
  2. Downy hair growth on the arms, back & face
  3. Poor circulation & feeling cold
  4. Dry, rough, discoloured skin
  5. Low blood pressure
  6. Disrupted menstrual cycles for females and, eventually loss of fertility
  7. Loss of bone mass and eventually, brittle bones

Psychological Symptoms

  1. Intense fear of gaining weight, even within the normal range. The sufferer can be constantly anxious about putting weight on. There is a tendency to assess self-worth almost exclusively in terms of weight & shape.
  2. Distorted perception of body shape and weight. Individuals overestimate their own body shape, believing they are bigger than they really are.
  3. Denial of the problem. Sufferers refuse to acknowledge that they are underweight or not eating
  4. Changes in personality & mood swings. Individuals may feel depressed or irritable & often concentration levels are affected. Progress at school or work can deteriorate.

Behavioural Symptoms

Rituals attached to eating such as cutting food into tiny pieces. Food causes high levels of anxiety in the anorexic. Rituals are undertaken in an attempt to control anxiety in a similar way to OCD

  1. Restlessness & hyperactivity
  2. Wearing baggy cloths to conceal weight loss
  3. Vomiting, taking laxatives or exercising excessively.
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