Eating disorders (young people)
Eating disorders and thought patterns
Many of the people we talked with described being taken over by constant negative thoughts, particularly about themselves. Some people referred to this as the “eating disorder voice”; a “supercritical”, “relentless” and “intrusive” voice. They said that voice makes them feel low and ’not good enough’, pushing them to restrict (severely limit eating), binge (eat excessively) or purge (rid the body of food).
Rob compared the internal voice to “having a bully in your head”.
Maria had a constant 'screaming voice' inside her head. It was exhausting to have conversations...
If bad things happened in life, people often felt it was their fault. They were first to blame themselves if anything went wrong at home. Such feelings could delay the initial contact with their GP as they didn’t want to feel like “a burden”.
Young people often described themselves as “worriers”. Their minds were filled up by “worst case scenarios”, worry about failure or what other people thought of them or even “the world ending tomorrow”. Some even worried about other people being worried about them. Fiona-Grace said her challenge was to learn to live in the moment, rather than worry about the future and “endless what ifs”.
People talked about different ways they coped with negative thoughts. These included getting the thoughts out into journals or blogs, having positive walls and compliments books and doing things that made them feel good about themselves. Distractions and mindfulness or relaxation techniques worked too. (For more see Coping with an eating disorder and self-help.)
Young people we spoke with often described an eating disorder as a form of control they could have over their own lives. People could feel out of control because of things happening around them such as:
Often the eating disorder was described as the only thing they could “control”. Some called it “my thing” that they “didn’t want to let others in on”. An eating disorder was something that was just for them and not for others to decide. Sometimes people felt that it was an “escape” and helped them cope.
A lot of people had experienced more than one type of eating disorder (often anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) and said that one of the differences between them was the amount of control they felt they had.
Zoe found it harder to cope with bulimia than anorexia. Restricting gave her a sense of control,...
People we talked with commonly described themselves as having “perfectionist” tendencies, being “driven” and “hard-working”. Desire to “do things right” and to achieve the highest possible goals could extend into many areas in life such as school or exercise. At the same time people often struggled with low self-esteem and could lack self-confidence even when they were in recovery.
Rachel felt that anorexia was her best friend and the one thing she was good at.
Throughout their illness, people developed complicated emotional relationships with food, bingeing, eating and not eating. As part of the negative mindset, people could feel that they didn’t deserve enjoyment or pleasure. The eating disorder could become a form of self-harm. People with anorexia nervosa sometimes described restricting their food intake as a way of punishing themselves. Elizabeth used to think that “pleasure meant failure” and that by restricting her food intake she was also restricting the fun she didn’t feel she deserved. Rob felt “he had no right to have fun” in life, either through food or in other areas of life. Georgia even said that she felt she didn’t “deserve to eat”.
Elizabeth said she needed to restrict food to compensate for having any fun. Feeling weak and...
Restricting food is like restricting pleasure and it’s like a compensation for any kind of fun. So the kind of example I use is this sort of holiday periods where I feel I can’t control what I’m eating and I feel like having the freedom to wander off around Europe and like see loads of different countries and visit loads of different places that had to be compensated for by not eating. And to kind of punish myself for that, for that freedom. And that experience. I had to like I had to kind of dampen the pleasure of, the enjoyment of that by making it really hard and making it, making myself feel like I was gonna faint the entire time because I was too weak, and yeah just, yeah being self-disciplined and I kind of feel, believe quite strongly that people don’t really deserve to have like, I felt that people just didn’t deserve to have any pleasure in their life. Like why? Why would you? Like why should you? You have to earn stuff and if you haven’t done anything to earn eating nice food, then why should you?
Restricting used to be a form of punishment for James. He used to love the feeling of hunger pains.
“My reaction to that unhappiness of feeling really dissimilar to all of these people around me was to kind of hold back and eat bean salad and go to the gym loads. And so I got into a very punishing cycle of working really hard, obsessively and exercising obsessively. And feeling like I didn’t have the right to have any fun.” -Elizabeth
Jasmin used to feel that eating would take away any feelings of upset.
Emily describes the cycle of bingeing and purging and the emotions that kept the cycle going.
Last reviewed October 2018.