Eating disorders can be difficult to notice.
As with many mental illnesses, many sufferers show no physical symptoms during the early stages. Nevertheless, it can be an incredibly serious and overwhelming mental illness, which is why it’s important for us to be aware of the specific warning signs or behaviours that may indicate that a loved one may have an eating disorder and needs help.
I’ve shared 5 non-physical signs to look out for, which tend to occur much earlier than the physical signs.
If you notice any of the 5 signs below in a close friend or relative, it may be beneficial to reach out to them and get a feel for what they are going through. If your loved one shows an indication of many or all of the 5 signs below, encourage them to seek professional help.
1. They withdraw from events involving food.
This behaviour tends to present itself early. Sufferers will decline invitations to go out for meals or parties, out of fear that they will be unable to control their food intake at such events. I remember refusing countless offers to get brunch, pretending that I was too overwhelmed with study or work. In reality, it was because I was terrified of the fact that I would be unable to control exactly what went into my meal or how many calories it would be. Unfortunately, this led me to become extremely isolated from my friends and family, which perhaps fuelled the illness.
2. They get anxious if anything disrupts their diet or exercise regime.
It can be normal to feel upset or annoyed if something gets in the way of your normal daily routine, but those suffering from an eating disorder will express unnaturally intense emotion. If they miss a workout, or feel like they have “overeaten”, it can put them into a bad mood for hours or even days. They may try to compensate by working out for twice as long the next day or skipping the next meal. This is usually coupled with feelings of guilt & failure.
3. They become overly concerned about their appearance.
Whilst they may not express their concerns out loud, there are certain things in what they say or do that demonstrate their obsession about their appearance. For example, they may spend abnormally long amounts of time in front of the mirror, trying on clothes or looking at pictures of themselves. They may also have a negative attitude or make derogatory comments about people who are “overweight”.
4. They lack emotion.
Especially in the late stages of the disease, your loved one may transform into a completely different person. One that is devoid of emotion (especially positive ones such as happiness or excitement). When they become deprived of nutrients and increasingly trapped in their mental prison, they can appear depressed, apathetic and withdrawn.
5. They lack energy.
Again, due to a total lack of adequate nutrition, your loved one will begin to appear absolutely exhausted. Their speech may slow down, they may take much longer to reply to questions, they may walk more slowly, and they may be much weaker than they were before. At my worst, I was so weak that I couldn’t even open my car door or pick up an empty handbag. I had absolutely NO energy to do anything and even the thought of walking up a flight of stairs filled me with dread.
If you do notice any of these signs, reach out to your loved one in a gentle and caring manner. They are in an extremely terrifying and dangerous headspace, and the best thing you can do for them is to support them, listen to them and encourage them to seek help.