What causes anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa can be caused by a number of different biological, psychological, and social factors, and often the development of the disorder is the result of several of these influences. Further, after developing anorexia nervosa, individuals might continue to struggle with the disorder due to a number of closely-related and frequently intertwined sustaining factors.
While it was long thought that AN was caused entirely from social pressures to stay thin, more recent research has indicated that genetic factors can play a role in the development of this disorder.
People can either be born with a higher risk of developing anorexia nervosa itself, or with a number of other characteristics that make them more susceptible to developing the disorder, including high levels of stress reactivity, anxious affect, and harm avoidance, which impact the way people respond to stressful situations. (1)
In these cases, an individual might start experiencing the types of thoughts and behaviors related to anorexia nervosa after a “triggering” incident activates their biological predisposition. (1) But the development—and maintenance—of the disorder can also be linked to depression, and a number of different anxiety disorders. Issues of low self-esteem and unhappiness surrounding body image can also play a role.
One of the reasons it may be difficult to recover from anorexia nervosa is because all of these factors must be taken into account when determining the best treatment approach for each individual. But a well-thought-out individualized treatment plan should address all of these concerns, as well as offer tools to help provide support throughout the recovery process.
Types of treatment for anorexia nervosa
There are a number of different methods that can help people recover from anorexia nervosa, and many of them may be used, often simultaneously, over the course of the journey toward healing.
From a psychotherapeutic standpoint, many people with AN benefit from cognitive remediation therapy (CRT). The overall goals of CRT are to help people become more flexible in their thinking and more confident in their own abilities to take care of themselves. (2)
Mental flexibility is particularly helpful for people with anorexia nervosa, as many of them also struggle with very rigid thinking patterns that also often work to maintain the disorder. (3) And a boost in confidence can be especially helpful for individuals dealing with issues of low self-esteem and poor body image. The tools and techniques taught to patients in CRT are also useful for helping to maintain recovery long term.
Mental health therapists are usually not the only healthcare professional a person recovering from AN will have on a treatment team. Depending on the program the person is in or their personalized treatment plan, individuals recovering from anorexia nervosa will work with a team of medical doctors, nurses, and other experts to help them get and stay on the path toward healing.
Dietitians are usually always involved in the process. Often, these professionals have training in therapeutic techniques commonly used to treat eating disorders and can offer foundational information on proper nutrition, along with continued guidance for building and maintaining a nourishing diet.
Medical doctors like a psychiatrist, advanced practice registered nurse, or physician assistant may also prescribe medications to help individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa. In these cases, the person will continue seeing the doctor or medication provider over the course of their recovery to check on and adjust medication levels as-needed.
And, depending on the program, other healthcare professionals may be available to help provide support through the process. Often, a counselor will supervise meals and snacks through the first several steps of recovery, offering support during what can be a particularly tricky time for most people struggling with anorexia nervosa. This meal support may also be provided by family members or virtual services, like those at Within Health.
Can anorexia be cured?
When asking the question of can anorexia be cured, it is important to understand that the journey to recovery from anorexia nervosa can take some time. It doesn’t end once a person works through their formal treatment plan or finishes a higher level of care. But rest assured anorexia can be treated, and recovered from with continued support.
AN has an unfortunately high rate of relapse, which makes it especially crucial for those in recovery to find the type of support that can help them stay committed to their recovery process and people they feel they can consistently rely on to show up for their best interests.
Fortunately, just that type of help can be easier to find than many people may think.
Willing confidants and reliable cheerleaders can often be found among family members and friends. If that’s not the case, other patients the person met along their journey can also be good sources of support.
Even if an individual feels that they are alone in their recovery process, there are a number of eating disorder support groups that may offer the type of help, understanding, and camaraderie that can make a life in recovery not just a lasting one but a happy one.
Recovery from anorexia nervosa is undoubtedly a trying process. It may take a long time. It may not be linear. It may even feel unbearable or impossible at times. But no matter what the case, the most important thing to remember is that healing is possible and it’s always ok to reach out for support.