More and more young people are suffering from eating disorders, according to shocking figures put together from government data by the Observer newspaper.1 According to their analysis, nearly 20,000 under-18s were referred, for the first time, to NHS eating disorder services last year, a rise of 46 percent from the previous year.
Of course, this is hugely concerning. Experts interviewed for the article mentioned the particular impact on young people of isolation, uncertainty and loss of control over their lives. Karen Street, officer for mental health at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, commented, in respect of the rise in cases at universities, that being stuck behind closed doors in virtual isolation was ‘an absolute trigger for an eating disorder.'
She then went on to say, ‘These aren’t going to go away. Once you’ve developed an eating disorder, you’ve now got an illness. It doesn’t just suddenly get better the minute lockdown is lifted.’
From a human givens perspective, this is a puzzling and troubling view. Yes, alarmingly, an eating disorder can develop into a chronic condition, if the right help isn’t available. But rather than view eating disorders as an illness per se, it is far more empowering to recognise that they manifest, as do other mental disorders, because important emotional needs are not being met. Once those needs are met in healthier ways, the ‘illness’ does indeed go away.
Young people who are isolated, perhaps struggling with studies, and unable to live their normal lives are suffering a massive loss of sense of control, security, and self-esteem. Restrictive eating is an attempt to exert control over decision making, if only about one’s own body; and over-eating can be a desperate attempt to replace connection, sense of achievement, etc.
Therapy that encourages the young person to find healthier, satisfying ways to meet their missing needs is more likely to result in a liberating attitude shift than therapy that focuses purely on the symptoms.
In Freedom from Addiction, a self-help guide to overcoming all sorts of addictive behaviours,2 human givens therapist Pamela Woodford describes her powerful work with young Tanya, who was struggling with anorexia. Not eating was her means of claiming at least some sense of control, in the face of a rare blood disorder, over which she could have no control at all.
Pamela drew pictures to explain the expectation theory of addiction, showing how, by a process called pattern matching, her brain was drawing on false memories of the ‘positives’ of not eating, sustaining the behaviour. With Pamela’s help, she learned a powerful method for changing the story that her mind had told her.
‘At that life-changing moment, I realised my mind was playing games with me,' she later told Pamela. ‘I now have different [mental] files that say I need food to live and to move and have fun—and to stop my mum from nagging.’ Pamela also showed Tanya how to take back control over her life in ways that made her feel fulfilled and good about herself.
Peter was a morbidly obese man who was seeking to have a gastric band, as he couldn’t see a way to stop his compulsive over-eating. He was referred to human givens practitioner Fiona Sheldon, who worked at the eating service.
She discovered that he had first learned to use food to comfort himself when he lost his father as a child and felt responsible for the care of his mother and sister, who had both become depressed. Although he managed to control his eating through yo-yo dieting as a young adult, he married a woman who was also prone to depression and needed support, and, pattern matching to the previous situation, he once again started gorging on food as a means of coping.
In his work with Fiona, he for the first time understood why he was behaving as he did and, after they looked together at his unmet needs and his misuse of his innate resources, was able to learn how to create a satisfying life for himself and lose a large amount of weight without any need for surgery. (She describes how she did this at the Lifting Depression Summit2 on Saturday, 27 February 2021.)
Tanya and Peter’s eating disorders were not ‘illnesses.’ They had lives that weren’t working for understandable reasons and, when they were helped to see this, they could take the steps needed to achieve both health and happiness.
1. Jayanetti, C (2021). NHS sees surge in referrals for eating disorders among under-18s. Observer, February 20.
2. Griffin, J and Tyrrell, I (2005). Freedom from Addiction: the secret behind successful addiction busting. HG Publishing, East Sussex.