This section includes information and support for:

Eating disorders - Anorexia

Jenny from London was a sufferer of anorexia for a number of years and here she tells her story:

'I developed anorexia in my twenties as a way of coping. I didn't feel I could verbalise my feelings and kept everything to myself. I had experienced childhood sexual abuse and was also sexually attacked as an adult. I told nobody and started to control my eating, eating as little as I could as I felt this was one thing I had control over. It seemed like people did whatever they wanted to me and I had no control over that. I felt if I could make myself smaller and smaller nobody could find me to hurt me. It also helped me to stop thinking about the abuse by focussing all my attention on eating, exercising, constantly weighing myself. I had always felt I had to be perfect but because of having such low self esteem I had never felt I was 'good enough' for anyone or at anything I did. In a strange way not eating made me feel I was being good at something and achieving something which other people couldn't. I also know now that it was a way of expressing anger - I was angry at the people who hurt me and angry at the people who didn't protect me and I turned that anger inward by taking it out on myself which frequently led to suicidal feelings and also harming myself by cutting my arms.

I was lucky enough to recognise that I needed someone to help me although I had always pretended to be strong and coping and taking care of everyone else so it was not easy to ask for help but I'm glad that I did. Talking to a counsellor made me realise the most important thing was to try and talk about my feelings - or write them down and to try and build a support network around myself and not to be afraid to ask people for help when I needed it. I was also able to talk through the trauma that I had suffered in my life and that was a tremendous release for me. The counsellor helped me to see that the abuse was in no way my fault and helped me to improve my self esteem and my ability to cope and ways to deal with anger in a more positive way which didn't involve harming myself. When you have anorexia the most important thing is to talk to someone. You cannot cope with it alone - if you do you could end up dead'!

(the above has been included on this website with Jenny's permission)

Anorexia is a way of coping with a whole series of problems. For various reasons the anorexic feels unsafe in the world and by not eating she/he feels more able to cope with her world. Life can be seen as frightening, full of situations, responsibilities and experiences which she/he feels unable to cope with. The type of person who develops anorexia is usually someone who is very self conscious, someone who lacks confidence, someone who strives to be perfect, someone who is over submissive and passive, someone who is intelligent and a high achiever and someone who has difficulty in outwardly expressing feelings. It is also difficult for the anorexic to outwardly express anger and to cope with any kind of conflict. There can also be a confusion about how to handle sexuality.

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Moving towards recovery

If you have an eating disorder you have to really want to get better and become a more healthy and positive person. This may mean finding help and support to help you let go of the hurt and pain you may be experiencing which has led you to develop an eating disorder as a way of coping. You need to be able to address the underlying cause of the eating disorder as well as deal with the eating disorder itself. You need to be ready to face whatever it is about yourself that you may not like, it may be that something traumatic or difficult has happened which you feel unable to face and deal with so you focus on not eating or controlling your eating in order that you don't have to deal with the underlying cause.

  • You have to be ready to admit to yourself that you do have an eating problem. It is common for those with anorexia to convince themselves they do not have a problem.
  • You have to ask yourself the question - do you want to spend the rest of your life controlling your eating, weighing yourself and feeling isolated, depressed, or do you want to turn your life around by using your energy in a positive way to get better, to start taking care of yourself and valuing yourself.
  • The body needs food to work properly. Just as a car needs petrol to run smoothly. If a car is running on the last few dregs of petrol the engine will not run as well and will eventually cease up when the petrol runs out. The same with your body. It needs nutrients from food to keep it healthy - by starving yourself and restricting your eating you will feel more tired, have less energy, have more headaches, feel more depressed, be susceptible to more colds and infections because you are running your body down. In the long term you could be causing damage to your internal organs, and could lead to infertility problems.
  • If you have anorexia you may feel that it helps you to have a feeling of controlling something in your life - however - eventually the anorexia will be controlling you and it will be another thing in your life which you have no control over. It is important, therefore, to get help as soon as you can.
  • Having anorexia may give you a feeling of being special and feeling that you are good at something i.e. good at restricting your food intake. If this is the case then look for something else which you can feel good at - something which will give you a sense of satisfaction and pride. Maybe you can think about completing a course, an exam, going out into the community to help someone in the form of voluntary work, - you don't need to give up food to make yourself feel good. You may already be good at writing poetry, writing stories, painting, being a good listener, being a caring person towards your friends - take time out to look at the things you are already good and successful at.
  • Talk to your GP who will also be able to advise you of a healthy minimum weight for your height and frame.
  • Find a counsellor who you can talk to about your problems and the way you are feeling and a counsellor will try and help you to look at the underlying cause which has led to the eating disorder.
  • Build a support network around you - this could include making use of telephone helplines, resources on the internet etc.
  • Try to give yourself small goals to work towards. Work towards eventually reaching your minimum healthy weight but break it down into small stages e.g. if the minimum weight for you should be 8 stone and you are currently six and a half stone make your first target to get to six and three quarters - when you succeed in that set yourself the next target of seven stone etc. until you are up to the minimum weight.
  • Each time you put on weight if you feel panicky and upset - take control of these feelings and tell yourself that putting on weight is a positive thing to do and it shows you are now ready to start taking care of yourself, taking control of your life and you are doing something to value yourself and are letting go of the need to control your weight.
  • By eating sensibly and exercising regularly you are not going to get fat - some people think if they reach their target weight the weight will keep going up and up - this wont happen if you eat a healthy diet, eat foods low in saturated fat, drink plenty of water, eat plenty of oily fish, fruit and vegetables etc. It is important to eat carbohydrates but not to excess.
  • If you are worried that your weight will keep going up once you have reached your target weight - you can always weigh yourself once a week and if you feel you are putting on weight over and above your target weight then for the next week - exercise more, cut down on sweets, cakes, biscuits etc. - this is a way of maintaining your weight at a healthy weight and means that you are in control.
  • You will find that when you start putting on weight, if you are also finding ways of expressing your feelings through counselling then you should start to feel less depressed and tired and more in control of your own life.
  • Eating healthily does not mean starving yourself of all the foods you like to eat. Some people find it works to treat themselves at weekends with a cake or some biscuits or chocolate.
  • If at the moment you are finding it really difficult to eat then start by eating foods which may be easier to eat like soup, yogurt, readybreak, etc. Try to eat something each day and try and eat little and often.
  • If you are constantly weighing yourself try to be in control of this - try not to weigh yourself more than once a day, then try and weigh yourself every other day, then eventually only once a week and then once a fortnight. After this you may not feel the need to weigh yourself on a regular basis.
  • Try not to exercise excessively - this means the exercising is controlling you - if you want to be in control of your life you should be able to control how much you exercise.
  • If you are not continually weighing yourself and exercising you will have time to try and look for new activities you can get involved in which will give you something else to focus on other than your eating disorder.
  • Try to think of healthy ways of getting out your feelings and emotions. This could include, writing about how you feel, poetry, drawing, art, exercising, dancing, learning self defence, etc.
  • Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. You don't have to be perfect and nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has off days, and everyone at some time in their life wishes they had done things differently or better - if you try your best you cannot ask for more than that.
  • Recognise that it is ok to ask for help and to express your feelings. You may be a very sensitive caring person who is always there to help your friends, family and maybe putting on a mask that you are happy and coping all the time. There is nothing wrong in saying to someone you are having an off day, or that you feel down or need a hug.
  • You are there for others so let others be there for you. You don't need to hide your feelings all the time. I am sure you would want to know if your friend was going through a hard time so you could give her/him some support - so think about confiding in a few friends you can trust as they may be there to give you support when you need it.
  • See yourself in a realistic light - focus on the good qualities and talents you have and don't keep running yourself down.
  • Be kind to yourself - talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend.

By overcoming anorexia you ARE taking control of your life - you are taking control and using your strength and determination to overcome anorexia in order to be a healthy person both physically and emotionally in order that you can move on with your life and achieve the things you want to achieve.

If you are controlling your eating as a means of coping because you have been abused please see the pages on Abuse on this site. Blanking or denying that something has happened won't make it go away, by facing reality and dealing with the reasons you are controlling your eating is a way of taking the control back in your own life. If you get help and support for the abuse you will find you won't need to keep hold of the eating disorder.

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Organisations which can offer support and information for eating disorders

  • Anorexia & Bulimia Care (ABC)
    03000 11 12 13
    (Option 1 SupportLine, Option 2 family and friends)
    ABC is a national UK eating disorders organisation with over 25 years experience. Ongoing care emotional support and practical guidance to anyone affected by eating disorders.

  • beat - beat eating disorders (formerly the Eating Disorders Association)
    Helpline 0345 634 1414
    b-eat Youthline
    0345 634 7650

  • British Nutrition Foundation
    020 7557 7930

    Provides information and advice on nutrition and related health matters. Produce a wide range of leaflets and books.

  • Dabs Directory and Book Services
    07854 653118 24hr answer phone helpline
    Books relating to Eating Disorders, Child Abuse, Self Esteem, Assertiveness, Self Harm etc.
  • Caraline: 01582 457474, www.caraline.com - Telephone helpline, counselling and support for people experiencing anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeaters. Monthly self help group, individual counselling and specialised programmes. Helpline national, other services Bedfordshire

  • Independence
    01223 550801

    Publishes book Coping with Eating Disorders price approx. £5.95.

  • National Institute for Health & Care Excellence:
    0300 323 0140

    Publish guidelines relating to Treatment of Anorexia

  • Office of Health Economics:
    Publishes a useful book called Eating Disorders: Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa 1994 by Richard West. Cost £5.00

  • SupportLine:
    01708 765200
    Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to Children, Young Adults and Adults on any issue. Also keep details of other agencies, support groups and counsellors throughout the UK

  • Young Minds: 0808 802 5544, www.youngminds.org.uk - Helpline and other support services for parents concerned about the mental health of a baby, child, or young person. Produces a range of leaflets, reports etc

Useful websites

Useful book

Overcoming Anorexia Nervosa: A Self Help guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques - Publishers Constable & Robinson: ISBN 1854879693
Click here to read more or buy this book

Information for Carers

This information is for parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and anyone else who may be caring for someone who has an eating disorder.

An eating disorder is a complex disorder and not always about weight and wanting to be thin, it can often develop when a person finds it difficult to cope with feelings, which could be anger, trauma, hurt, resentment, and a sufferer is invariably experiencing deep emotional pain.  This could be as a result of prolonged stress, breakdown of personal or family relationships, bullying, abuse, school/college difficulties, feeling isolated, bereavement, traumatic event etc.  The sufferer feels under tremendous pressure and as if she or he is not in control of their own life. They see food as one way of exerting that control and also a way of taking the focus of the painful feelings they are trying to avoid.  However sadly sooner or later the eating disorder becomes another thing in the person’s life over which they have no control.

For those caring for someone who has an eating disorder it can be very frustrating because often the sufferer will not admit to having a problem and therefore will refuse to get any kind of help or even discuss the issue.

It is important to remember you cannot help someone unless they are ready to admit there is a problem and be prepared to do something about it.

Sufferers of eating disorders often have very low self esteem and often seem to strive for perfection.  When they see themselves falling short of perfection that affects their self esteem making the person feel not good enough. A person who has an eating disorder often finds it hard to verbalise how they actually feel. 

A carer may often feel helpless and not know what to do and it is helpful to try and gain as much information as you can about the disorder so that you know what to expect.  There are many resources on the internet and some agencies also publish booklets for carers.  Try and keep positive and leave around for the sufferer some information which may be helpful like supportive websites, leaflets, booklets, and information on local counselling services, telephone helplines etc.  When they feel ready to address the problem they will then have some information to hand which they can access.

Find a time to talk to the sufferer when you feel calm, relaxed, and there is nothing else going on to distract. Try to avoid judging or accusing, blaming, and you can explain you have noticed a change in their eating habits and in their personality and you are concerned and you are there if they feel they want to talk about this at any time, and encourage them to seek help from helplines and counselling services.  Explain that you accept the person unconditionally whatever issues there are going on for them and love them – this can mean a tremendous amount to the sufferer who often has a fear of opening up as they don’t want to be blamed or judged.

Try and get across that you want to help them to overcome this and ask them in what ways they feel you could help.

If a person refuses to eat, try and work with them to let them have some control over what they feel they may eat, if a person is bulimic and makes herself/himself sick, explain it is the responsibility of the sufferer to clear it up, so that they are taking responsibility for their own condition.

By and large it is best to avoid getting into indepth discussions about food, weight, and a persons personal appearance, instead focus on the persons skills, accomplishments, qualities, etc.  Try and boost the persons self esteem in whatever way you can.

It is important to recognize that somehow day to day life has to carry on, try to avoid making this issue take over your life, try and encourage the sufferer to carry on with normal activities, socializing with friends, and family members.  Try to avoid focusing all attention on the sufferer which means other family members may be neglected which could cause anger and resentment.

Meals times can cause enormous pressure for everyone, so sometimes it can help to play games or have music on as a way of relieving the tension which may be around.  It can also be a good idea to have something planned to do after mealtimes, like a walk, game, some activity which may help distract someone who is bulimic from making themselves sick.

Try and work with the person as much as possible letting them remain in control.  If they agree to go to counselling you could offer to go with them the first time and wait in the waiting room, but leave the decision up to them as far as possible.

It is important that whatever treatment they have that the reasons behind the eating disorder are addressed, not just the eating disorder itself, otherwise, it is highly likely that the eating disorder will return.  A person who has an eating disorder has to try and find alternative ways which are healthy and positive of coping with stress, problems, traumas, and very often counselling can give the sufferer an outlet for their feelings which can be of enormous help to them.  

Some sufferers, particularly those of a very low weight may need day or residential care from a specialized unit and it is important to talk to those helping the sufferer to ensure that talking therapies are also given and if they are not to ensure that is arranged.  All too often we are told by sufferers who have been hospitalized that the focus is solely on getting them to a healthy weight and then they are discharged without any talking therapies being provided, sadly in those cases the eating disorder invariably returns.  

Ensure that you yourself get help and support, recovery may be a slow process and there will be many changing emotions for you to deal with yourself, it is not something to carry alone.
The following agencies can also provide help and support to Carers.

B-eat (formerly the Eating Disorders Association)
Helpline 0345 634 1414
Youth Helpline 0345 634 7650
see Help and Support Section – Carers on their website.

Anorexia and Bulimia Care
Parents Helpline 03000 11 12 13
Option 1 Supportline, Option 2 family and friends

National Christian organization run by Christians for sufferers, families and carers. Can put parents of sufferers in contact with other parents of sufferers. www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk

Young Minds:
0808 802 5544 
Helpline and support services for parents concerned about the mental health of a child or young person. Publications.

www.mind.org.uk – publish booklets in relation to eating disorders including information for Carers.

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