What is It?
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by extremely low body weight (at or below 15% of the healthy weight range), an intense fear of gaining weighty, body image distortion, and amenorrhea for at least 3 months (Clark, Cotterill, Grothe, Himes, McAlpine, Sime, 2010). An individual with Anorexia will usually become obsessed with food and thoughts of food, causing them to frequently watch cooking shows, look up recipes, and make calorie laden food for others while refusing to eat any of it.
It is important to realize that Anorexia is also a psychological disorder. It is a condition that goes beyond concern about obesity or out-of-control dieting. A person with Anorexia often initially begins dieting to lose weight, but over time, the weight loss becomes a sign of mastery and control. Anorexia is like a distinct being with its own personality. It controls and manipulates their thoughts, and distorts what they see in the mirror. The drive to become thinner is actually secondary to concerns about control and fears relation to one’s body. The individual continues the ongoing cycle of restrictive eating, often accompanied by other behaviors such as excessive exercising, overuse of diet pills to induce loss of appetite, and/or diuretics, laxatives, or enemas in order to reduce body weight, often to a point close to starvation in order to feel a sense of control over his or her body. This cycle becomes an obsession, and, in this way, is similar to an addiction (Dryden-Edwards, 2011). It is common for severe anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder to accompany the disorder.
Causes of Anorexia
While it is impossible to determine the exact cause of Anorexia in an individual, and the cause varies for every individual, researchers have identified many likely causes of this disorder. Many accuse the thin ideal in our society as a major contributor to eating disorders, especially those in young girls. These things have been shown to lead to body dissatisfaction in young girls and to a low body image, which in turn leads to dieting and restriction. This alone most likely does not cause it because there are many girls who are exposed to the same things but do not develop anorexia.
Another explanation that has been researched extensively is the physical makeup of the individual, specifically genetics and the brain. Additional causes may be personality traits such as perfectionism, high social anxiety, and high social class (Dryden-Edwards, 2011). Women with eating disorders have also been found to have higher levels of attachment insecurity than those women without eating disorders.
Anorexia in the Classroom
Individuals with Anorexia will most likely not exhibit behavior in the classroom that is difficult to manage since they are usually perfectionists and are driven to please. The most important thing a teacher can provide for a student with Anorexia is a supportive and safe learning environment that does not contribute to the student’s obsessive attention to food, weight gain, or body image (Province of British Columbia, 2011). A teacher might feel like they are going to try and “heal” the student of anorexia, possibly by bringing treats into the classroom or commenting on the student’s appearance. This will only contribute to the student’s preoccupation with food, making it even more difficult for them to focus in class and reinforce the disorder. Avoid any activities that would negatively draw attention to the individual’s weight, body image, or eating disorder. Also, if having any kind of food-related discussions, try to “normalize” the discussion for everyone, and try to help the student set reasonable and realistic goals because these individuals will most likely be very rigid in their academic work and set unreasonably high goals for themselves.
Teachers should encourage these students to get involved in class activities, while not drawing too much attention to them. Small groups generally work best for these students. However, teachers need to be aware of signs that indicate the student is becoming overly stressed. When the teacher notices that a student is becoming irritable, aggressive, crying, or is suddenly withdrawing from the work, the teacher should let them take a break by going on a short walk, lying down, etc. Another important strategy to use as a teacher is to provide support to the friends of the individual who has Anorexia. Provide information to them about eating disorders and how to best help and support one who is suffering from an eating disorder.
In going through the transition process with individuals with Anorexia, the first priority is the student’s health and survival. Anorexia is a life threatening disorder that often turns into a chronic disorder. Few individuals fully recover from it, or they must go through a lengthy recovery process.
Thus, in reality, the student with anorexia will be dealing with the disorder or the effects of it for many years, or even their whole life. If severe enough, the student may have to enter intensive treatments either after graduation or during high school, which include hospitals, residential programs or day treatment programs. If a student is dealing with Anorexia in high school and working to overcome it, it is not realistic for them to just go off to college immediately. It is very likely that they will relapse or continue back into this addictive disorder and not seek the help they need on their own. The teacher who is working with the student through the transition process must work closely with the student’s family, therapist, etc., to determine what the best option is for the student.
References and Websites
- Clark, M.M., Cockerill, R.G., Grothe, K.B., Himes, S.M., McAlpine, D.E., & Sim, L.A. (2010). Identification and Treatment of Eating Disorders in the Primary Care Setting. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 85(8), 746-751.
- Dryden-Edwards, R. (2011, Feb 03). Anorexia nervosa. Retrieved from medicinenet.com
- Province of British Columbia. (2011). Teaching students with eating disorders. Retrieved from bced.gov.bc.ca