The Basic Problem in Anorexia

I felt a bit overwhelmed writing my last blog about Sita, and needed to recharge in a way that would allow the process to unfold at a slower pace, in a more holistic way. The archetype of Sita is such a strong one, and it resonates with almost every women in some shape or form, and even with some men.

So todays writing is a consequence of this decompressing, an unfolding. Although this too comes from the innermost reaches of my psyche, I experience it as being more muted. The wish to write about this subject was surprising even to me, since I have never identified myself as an anorexic. But whenever I experience an emotional loss, however insignificant, or significant, there is a natural shying away from food, until I can heal myself back to normalcy. The degree of my disconnection from food is almost always linked with the depth of felt loss.  For most cases, barring one or two, I have had enough resiliance to cope with those losses but it is by making sense of  a handful of personal experiences that were deeper than others, and by using them as a context, I attempt to understand the inner world of eating disorders.

Anorexia is a condition that usually strikes during pre-teen and teenage years. A pervasive condition in the contemporary world, statistics reveal that approx 1-5% of all adolescents in US are anorexic, and of these, only 10% are males, the rest all being females.  A tragic condition that is sometimes also diagnosed in older adults as well, it causes severe damage to the body, debilitates the individual socially, emotionally as well as financially,  and often tears families apart. Without treatment, more than 20% of the people afflicted with Anorexia, die. With treatment, only 60% make a full recovery. The remaining, 20%, make partial recovery but they remain underweight and have severe psychological and medical issues, and the spectre of relapse always looms large for all that are affected.

Anorexia is more prevalent in Western countries, though it is on the rise in the non Western countries as well. This is assumed to be related to the role of the media and the attitude of objectification of the feminine. The advent of Western media in the Non Western countries is blamed for the changing landscape in those countries as well. Genetics has been implicated too, but then, genetics and bioloy is the way the psyche manifests itself, the body is used to express all the psychological distress that the psyche cannot contain and manage. The excess distress spills over in the physical realm. The mind infects the matter with its overwhelm, so that it may remain reasonably functional. Hence developmental and depth psychology has a slightly different take on this subject, and we will explore these perspective in the following paragraphs.

The developmental perspective on anorexia is pretty simple in its formulation. Anorexia
represents the inability of a tender psyche to take in nourishment. Symbolically, something has gone awry in the psyche that causes problems with ingestion of nourishment. However, what is messed up, is the psyche’s ability to take in love, and loving relationships. Unlike children growing in reasonably “normal” households,  if children are deprived of love, or if lack of love is associated with annhilation fear (will I survive this loss or will I die – literally or even metaphorically ?), the psyche develops a deep, debilitating fear of love itself. Since love is nourishing, all symbols associated with nourishment become affected. The psyche flees inwards, and rejects all external sources of nourishment, food being just one of them. The body, devoid of nutrition, keeps deteriorating, and many physical ailments and medical conditions arise. It isn’t just a question of not feeding oneself, but being revolted by food, for food becomes associated with toxicity…just like the primal love had been tainted and has been toxic. The psyche rejects all that seems threatening to it. Lets examine how this can be so.

We return, once more, to right brain and left brain functioning. New readers may want to scroll back a few posts to read how the right brain and left brain functions. Further details are provided by Matte Blanco in his book titled The Unconscious as Infinite Sets: An Essay in Bi-Logic. A very brief recap in the following paragraph.

The left brain processes discretely, and has the capability of differentiating between objects. It functions asymmetrically. So it can see the sun, and understand it as sun. One’s father is one’s father – a man who is known by a name and all qualifying labels. A teacher is a teacher, distinct from the sun, or the father. And god – well, he is abstract, but the father is not god, nor is the teacher god.

The right brain, however, lacks the ability to differentiate between objects. It recognizes objects only in their entirety (takes in a whole scene for example) and works on the basis of symmetry. Right brain makes symbolic meaning, hence many objects in the outer world may correspond to one single symbol in the psyche. Thus sun, male, father, god may be undifferentiated in the right brain, and interchageable, but because of the left brain processing phenomenon, these are held discretely in cognition (we are able to differentiate between each of them!). However, the right brain is associated with the unconscious, and so in the unconscious these symbols are interchangeable…..

With that background, let us now return to the basic problem of anorexia. Imagine a child deprived of an optimal environment. Imagine the child’s psyche deprived of love, and associated feelings of safety and security. Or even a sudden incident that disrupts the tender sense of being, the continuousness of life. The fear of abandonment, the terrifying insecurities associated with fear of death, and the need to survive etc cause the psyche to close upon itself – just like an external threat may cause the all national defences to be put on red alert. The body is constricted, conserving energy, warding off perceived external threat, almost as if the fear doesn’t allow the child to breathe. This lack of breathing freely also gets associated with the the inability to digest. A fearful child will consider any outside object to be threatening, food being one of them. The stomach muscles, and the reflexes are too wound up. Food is synonymous to love in the right brain, and toxic food/love thus intermixed in their signals, is harmful for the body, and the psyche decides that it cannot/should not be digested. So if the love provided at home is toxic, the maladaptive associations with nourishment cause digestive systems to constrict. The psyche associates bad love with bad food. The right brain cannot distinguish between these two symbols – love and food. Both are associated with nourishment. Because one kind of nourishment is toxic, the psyche, in an attempt to heal itself, prevents all kinds of nourshments from entering the body. And so, bad love in the external environment is interpreted and manifests itself as a loss of appetite, or an aversion to food,. Food here is viewed by the psyche as just an alternate kind of nourishment and there is no difference between love and food. Hence heartbreak, loss, bereavement, grief is often accompanied by  lack of appetite. The body puts a temporary hold on the digestive system, because the “source of nourishment” has been lost (loss of loving relationship), or if it comes it may be toxic (bad relationship!). So anorexia is nothing but an adaptive response to the stressful condition where the psyche is simply trying to protect itself from toxic invaders/objects from the external reality. Such a defence is merely in the service of survival, but is obviously a skewed up solution to an legitimate threat of emotional, psychological or even biological annhilation. The defence can be employed not only in childhood, but at any time of life, and is triggered by any loss, or bad relationship, but usually breaks open more noticeably during the teenage years.

What does it mean?

Treatment programs often emphasise the nutritional aspects of the wellbeing, the exercise routine, and healthy living. All that is great, but only as an adjunct. The most poignant, and the most powerful aspect of treatment, the loving relationship, is often not emphasized as much. Most treatment methos emphasize outside inapproach – ie if the external is monitiored, the internal psyche will respond. That may be true for a while, but it usually does not have a sustaining power. Hence the person may experience initial success, but will soon revert back to anorexic symptoms because what is essentially a psychological, a developmental problem, cannot be cured thru medication, nor thru controlling the external environment. The problem has caused internal psychological damage, and the internal damage is what needs to be addressed if any lasting change is to be experienced.

The psyche is a self healing machine. It is conditioned to live and in its desperate desire to live, it sometimes struggles too much, and morphs too much. It does everything in its power to ensure survival, and will works towards health and balance – ON ITS OWN. People with anorexia may not necessarily need a rigid structure as many feel they do. They do need love and empathy. And once the developmental blocks are removed, the developmental wounds healed, they will naturally be gravitated towards healthy and balanced living. This is the method of working from inside out.

As this phenomenon unfolds in the life of the patient, the symptoms of anorexia slowly recede into the background. So by healing the psychological developmental wound, the symptoms that cause the wounds automatically recede and subside. They don’t necessarily need to be “worked on” in a major, defined way.

If you’re having a problem with eating, or chronic digestion issues, see your doctor, but also get help with resolving your psychological issues. The physiological and medical; issues are but an extension of severe conscious or unconscious psychological pain.

PS: The thoughts expressed here are the author’s opinion and do not subscribe or prescribe to any one specific orientation. If you’re having problems in eating, please seek medical and psychological help immediately. For more information about symptoms, click here.



16 responses to “The Basic Problem in Anorexia”

  1. […] I was throwing up one night my throat began to bleed. Inoticed it in the sink after my family’s Christmas dinner party. That’s when I decided I needed a break. I’ve […]

  2. […] found this article on another website that talks about anorexia in the comments section.  It just broke my heart: I don’t really know […]

  3. I don’t really know where else to post this, but I’m a 14 year old girl living in California, and am anorexic. I’ve been through depression and therapists etc… I just can’t shake the feeling that my image is less than perfect. I have a boyfriend who I have been incredibly happy with. I promised him I would leave my anorexic ways, but they just keep coming back. I just wanted to lose the weight so I could lose the self consciousness. Is there anything I can really do to escape the pressure to be thin? To have people tell me that 140 lbs. is fat? (That’s where I am currently, maybe 135 or less, I don;t really know)

    1. Hi Victoria,

      All therapy is not alike. The orientation of the therapist determines the method, and treatment. If you had a therapist advising you to eat, or to forget about your weight, or even a therapist who tried to improve your self image thru affirmative statements, then thats not the therapy really that works with anorexia, or any disorder for that matter (in my humble opinion). Healing is an outcome of a relationship, the relationship is not contingent on healing.

      So I would advise you to find a therapist who works, for example, in depth orientation. Most of them will NOT talk to you about your eating habits. Treatment is layered. The innermost layers, the layers that you won’t see, will silently work on the part that is anorexic.

      As for the weight, it is always best to ask your doctor these questions. What weight is ok for a healthy 14 year old, is not a question of looks. Its a range that allows the legs to support the weight well, for the bloodstream to function well. Under normal circumstances, the psyche regulates hunger to optimise that condition(weight). Under abnormal conditions – like trauma etc – the psyche loses that ability. But you are young, and resiliant. And will definitely bounce back.

      Ask your mom to take you to a depth therapist who may refer you to a doctor or a nutritionist.

      All the best. You are precious all around – the looks and weight just two aspects of a personality, among million others.


  4. Hi,
    I am a recovering anorexic, alcoholic, and addict; and I haven’t read a single article which made more sense to me regarding the cause of my eating disorder. I have always known that the sudden onset of my own struggle with anorexia was related to the heartache i felt after my ex boyfriend and i broke up following the death of my 7 year old sister, and the fact that he would refuse to speak to me or look at me, no matter what i did or how many times I tried to reach out to him… but no one was EVER able to pinpoint the spiritual need to be seen, noticed by someone who’s love they desired and lacked…
    I was curious as to what the spiritual malady might be, or the psychological probelm might be behind the even more common problem of Binge eating?

    1. Miasky,

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that the article validated your feelings and thoughts. Part of being well involves understanding why one does the things that they do, and I hope your insightful road to recovery is smooth.

      Binge eating ? Eating provides symbolic nurturing from symbolic mothers. Hence the person is allowing themselves to be nurtured. But since the love may have been intermixed with rejection, therefore the nurturing is rejected. The distinction between food, love, and provider is lost in the external reality because the instinct is stronger than cognition.

      Hope this helps. I will contemplate on it some more…

      Take care.


  5. To you this may be disgusting and awful… but to me…. its, beautiful.

    1. Same here. You may think im wrong but i think bones are beautiful and to be honest i dont see a problem with thinking so. To me, ana is a way of life… Sure it may be tourture at times but thats the way i choose to live. I mean you wouldnt go up to a vegan and tell them their wrong for living that way. So dont tell me im im living life wrong.

      1. Hi Jenny,

        Thank you for reading and commenting. I was not being judgmental. My job is just to associate the causal factors. What the clients, or readers wish to do with those insights is entirely up to them.


  6. I had Anorexia when i was 14 years old, i went to countless Psychologists and Psychiatrists i was adopted, my adoped father lost interest in me when i was 13yrs no more hugs and kisses , now at 36 I have Bipolor. We put my Anorexia down to maybe bipolor as i was showing signs at 6 years , a control factor maybe. Who knows, i am ok now have a son and a wonderful husband who is an amazing cook, But i never will be completly over it, xo

    1. Hi Jacinta,

      Sorry to hear this. Life is wonderful, and you know you are loved. At 14, we take it as if it is all our fault somehow, and that we can fix it. But it really isn’t the child’s fault, it is the disorder in the adult that affects the child. And you could not have controlled it thru not eating. Of course hindsight in 20-20, but iI hope it brings insight and relief hopefully.

      Thanks for sharing, and all the best to you and your family.


  7. jessica siaosi Avatar
    jessica siaosi

    o.m.g how can we live like that i am so sorry for what you have become but we like perfect just the way we are you dont need to be skinney to look perfect.

  8. Awesome article! thanks for the good read!

  9. Madhu, your writing, as always, is clear and intelligent. But the pictures you’ve added say a thousand more words. My heart was touched with sorrow at viewing these poor girls/women. And the fact that family coldness (a situation so common in modern, western culture) could be such a strong contributor to this disease makes it all the more heart wrenching. Your article has made me think about how I , as a man and father, had, at times, withheld that love from my daughter (which, thankfully, was remedied very early in her childhood), and how such inaction could have created so debilitating a result. We do indeed bear great responsibilities towards one another. Thank you for pointing this out.

    1. Oscar,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      And I am thankful for the fact that you addressed and remedied the problem in your daughter’s life. Most parents are merely ignorant about the impact of their behavior towards their children, very few are deliberately and intentionally malicious. And so education is an essential component of the social change. Plus the necessity for full time work forces many parents to leave their children in childcare situations in the western countries, and that always leaves a residue on the child’s psyche. No matter how good, parental love can never be replaced by someone else and there will always be a difference in the nature of the relationship between the hired help and a real parent. In the East the traditional family roles allow either the mother to stay at home, or a grandmother to care for the children, although there too the financial constraints are slowly changing the landscape. The lack of emotional fulfilment manifests as a need to capture attention from others, under any circumstances, at any cost.

      It takes a long sustained emotional deprivation to manifest as an eating disorder. My heart goes out to these children, adolescents and young adults. Even when the eating habits go back to normal, it takes great effort, and great courage for them to lead normal adult lives.


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