Eating Disorders are serious illnesses that squeeze joy and ease out of your life. They take a huge toll on your body and mind and can shorten life span. Despite how damaging the effects can be, you can heal from (most of) the heartbreaking side effects of eating disorders.
Consequences of eating disorders vary, depending on which eating disorder you have, the duration and severity of the disorder, and a few other factors.
If you have an eating disorder, reading about the side effects is not likely to motivate you to recover. Education alone is not enough.
Upon learning about side effects, you might think “oh, that (side effect) won’t happen to me”. Or “if that happens, I will deal with it then.” Or even “I hope that (side effect) happens because I deserve to suffer.”
Separating the psychological and physical side effects is not completely fair, because the mind and body are connected to one another. One affects the other.
The psychological side effects of eating disorders are what I am going to focus on here.
You can read about the physical side effects here.
How do eating disorders cause psychological side effects?
Well, atypical eating behaviors, such as fasting or chronic dieting, impact your thoughts and emotions. (And, of course, your body.)
Dangerous patterns of compensation, such as self-induced purging or laxative abuse, do too. (And they affect your body as well.)
Even though your body and mind are resilient, the force of eating disorders is fierce and destructive. Withholding nourishment from and inflicting punishment onto yourself cause wounds. And some wounds leave scars.
The psychological impact of eating disorders can be complex. And less obvious than the physical side effects.
The psychological impact is less visible but no less serious.
For example, shame, loss of control, hyper-control, and body image problems are common. So are guilt and anxiety.
Other mental health side effects of eating disorders include:
- major mood swings
- depressive thoughts or actions
- obsessive-compulsive behaviors
- general anxiety
- impulsive behaviors, such as self-harm
- low self-esteem
(Please note: Research has yet to determine exactly which psychological variables are linked to the cause and which are due to the effects of eating disorders.)
Three lesser known heartbreaking psychological side effects of eating disorders include:
- Poor interoception
- Self objectification
- Psychological inflexibility
Let me explain what these fancy sounding concepts mean, why they’re important, and what you can do to heal them.
Interoception tells you what your body feels on the inside. Interoceptive awareness occurs when you recognize you have to empty your bladder (i.e. you have to pee), or that your heart is racing.
Interoception is also knowing when you’re feeling hungry and when you’re feeling full.
By definition, having an eating disorder means not eating when hungry (restriction/fasting), and/or eating beyond fullness (bingeing). Over time, your body’s hunger and fullness signals get dysregulated because they’ve been ignored. They get used to you overriding them.
Recovery involves improving interoceptive awareness by re-regulating your hunger and fullness signals.
Meeting with a registered dietician who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders can help you do this. The basic recommendation is to eat in a structured, consistent, patterned way each day: Meal, snack, meal, snack, meal, snack. And not to go 4 or more waking hours without eating.
As a bonus interesting fact: I have noticed that a lot of people in treatment for an eating disorder also tend to ignore other body signals, including the need to pee.
2. Self-objectification is a body image concept that has to do with seeing yourself as an object first, and a human being second.
Your experience of being female is defined by a culture that sexually objectifies women’s bodies.
So as a girl/woman, you naturally internalize an observer’s view of your body. This leads to ongoing monitoring of your body’s appearance. And of weight especially. It also increases shame, anxiety, and disgust toward yourself. Self objectification leads to eating disorders and remains a side effect.
Eating disorder recovery involves redefining your relationship with your body and seeing it through your own lens. Learning other ways to experience (see, feel, connect with) your body. And honoring your body as part of your human experience.
3. Cognitive inflexibility increases risk for eating disorders and is a side effect that’s hard to change. Especially for people who have Anorexia nervosa.
Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift your thinking and/or your plan or strategy.
A lack of cognitive flexibility occurs during eating disorders and continues into recovery.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a useful treatment approach. The focus is on helping you learn how to identify underlying thinking patterns that may be keeping you stuck. Meditation can also help.
Eating disorders are serious yet highly treatable. Yes, you can fully heal from an eating disorder – with treatment with a therapist trained in providing therapy to people with eating disorders.
The sooner you seek specialized help, the sooner you will heal from the symptoms and side effects of eating disorders.
And what a gift to yourself that is!
I am a clinical psychologist specializing in helping people recover from eating disorders. What that looks like is working alongside each person, as they discover true joy and passion in life, live fully embodied, and heal more and more each day.