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Anorexia Nervosa is a type of eating disorder. Eating disorders is the term given to a group of illnesses where a person has a distorted view of body shape and weight, and they have extreme disturbances in their eating behaviour.

Characteristics of anorexia

Anorexia is characterised by:

  • extreme concerns about weight
  • intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
  • deliberate maintenance of a very low body weight
  • often absent menstrual cycles

People with anorexia have an intense desire for weight loss and to be thin (often unhealthily so). Although people with anorexia are usually underweight, they generally believe that they are ‘fat’. Food, weight, and appearance often become the main focus for someone who has anorexia.

Concentrating on food and weight becomes a (conscious or unconscious) way of dealing with or managing intense emotions or emotional difficulties that they are experiencing.

Both guys and girls from any social or economic background, can suffer from anorexia. Although the disorder usually begins in the late teenage years, it can manifest at any age, and its onset is often associated with a stressful event or a period of dieting.

Common signs

Some of the common signs of anorexia may be:

  • being afraid of putting on weight
  • calorie counting and/or obsessively avoiding high fat food
  • marked weight loss
  • not wanting to eat
  • being hungry but not wanting to admit it
  • over-exercising
  • obsessive weighing
  • getting cold easily
  • irregular (or absent) menstrual cycles
  • feeling or talking about being fat even when very thin
  • nails and hair become brittle
  • dry and yellow skin
  • preference to eating alone or only eating around other people
  • feeling depressed and irritable
  • Lanugo, or fine body hair, on the trunk and face

If you are experiencing a number of these things, talk with someone you trust, like a family member, teacher, psychologist or local doctor. Look in your local phone book to find details of people you can approach for assistance in your local area. You can also ask a doctor to refer you to someone who can help you.

What causes it?

Eating disorders such as anorexia are a combination of physical and mental health difficulties and there are usually a number of factors that contribute to its development. These factors could include any or all of the following:

  • physical, emotional, or sexual trauma
  • cultural emphasis or preoccupation with body image ideals
  • relationships with peers and family
  • loss and grief
  • brain chemistry
  • physiological effects of dieting
  • stress or coping styles
  • genetic factors
  • a feeling of lack of control over one’s life
  • an inability to cope with and manage emotions/feelings in a more positive way

It’s often impossible to identify one single cause of a person’s eating disorder. Rather, eating disorders are usually a result of a combination of factors working together. For some people, it’ll be easy to identify what some of the reasons may be, but for others it can be very difficult.

Regardless of the causes or reasons, it’s important to remember that people with anorexia can and do recover.

Anorexia and bulimia

Both anorexia and bulimia are eating disorders, but the characteristics of each are different. Anorexia is characterised by a desire to lose weight, and self-starvation (severe restriction of the amount of food consumed). People who experience bulimia also usually share the intense desire to lose weight and be thin, but instead of starving themselves they are prone to episodes of eating large amounts of food in short spaces of time (binging), which they then feel the need to rid themselves of via various means of purging (such as vomiting, starving, over-exercising, or abuse of laxatives).

People who suffer from anorexia often have episodes of binge eating and purging; however, unlike bulimics, their body weight is well below the ‘healthy’ range. For more information see the fact sheet on bulimia.

Where to get help for eating disorders

Many people with eating disorders feel that they’re not ‘sick enough’ or ‘thin enough’ to warrant receiving help for their disorder. It’s important to remember, and keep reminding yourself, that eating disorders are psychological disorders that cause great suffering.

The bodily effects of an eating disorder are merely a symptom of deeper issues. Anybody whose life is being affected by an eating disorder, regardless of its perceived severity, deserves access to support and treatment. Everyone with an eating disorder deserves to have their eating disorder taken seriously, regardless of what they weigh or of how much or how little they eat.

It’s a good idea to try and find help sooner rather than later. The longer someone has experienced anorexia, the more difficult it is to start the recovery process. It might also be a good idea to remember this if you are starting treatment. If you’re having difficulties reaching the goals set in your recovery process, try not to be too hard on yourself. It’s important to keep trying. Persistence and courage are the keys to recovery. Remember that recovery is possible. Check out face-to-face help for information on how to get support.

Everybody with anorexia is different, so the same treatment approach won’t be suited to everyone. What works for one person might not work for you, so it’s worth investigating and trying out various options and approaches. Your local doctor, or Bodywhys – The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland will be able to help you find out about what options are available, and which one could benefit you the most.

People get lots of help from counsellors, nutritionists, psychologists, psychiatrists, or other health professionals. And remember, if you try one thing and it hasn’t worked, it doesn’t mean that you failed – it just means that you may need to try a different approach! Have a look at face-to-face help, services explained and types of therapy.

What you talk about with people that are helping you will vary depending on the individual you see and their field of expertise. However, common things that are often talked about are what your beliefs and behaviours about food and weight are, how you feel about yourself, and how you came to develop these things. You will also be guided to learn better ways of managing your feelings and difficulties, and to have a healthier and more positive approach to yourself, food, and weight.

Sometimes, to help you get better, you may spend some time in a hospital so that your nutritional or psychological needs can be looked after in an environment that offers a more intense level of support. This may include having your weight returned to a level that will not cause immediate danger to your health. Some people also find it easier to learn to eat healthily again in a more structured and supportive environment that a hospital can provide, regardless of whether they are at a medically unstable weight or not.

Asking for help with an eating disorder can be a daunting prospect and requires a lot of courage, but it’s worth it. Not sure? Check out the benefits of talking to someone.

Trust and honesty

Speaking to someone about your eating habits honestly and openly may be hard, and it’s particularly important to trust the person you’re speaking with. If there’s a family member you feel comfortable telling, the simplest way might be to sit down with them and just say it (eg ‘I need to tell you something – I think I have anorexia/an eating disorder).

It’s  fairly likely they’ll already be worried about you and be relieved at having the opportunity to listen and help. If you don’t get a positive response though, try to remember that it’s not because you’ve done something wrong, but because the person you told may not know how to respond to what you have told them, or understand much about eating disorders. If you’re concerned about who to tell, see support from friends and family.

Don’t give up – either try again or maybe speak to someone else who you think you might receive a more supportive response from. You might find it easier to talk to a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist (someone who’s outside the situation).

Like any relationship, building up this trust may take time and it’s important you find someone you feel comfortable with (this may mean seeing several people before finding one that you ‘click’ with). Have a look at face-to-face help for more information about finding the right help.

If talking about it with someone is too overwhelming, an alternative is to email or write down what you want to say. For more information about seeing a counsellor for the first time, have a look at first counsellor visit.

More information

Check out the rest of eating disorders for more information about anorexia, other eating disorders, and related topics. You can get all the information on how to contact Bodywhys and how they can help in online and telephone help.

If you have any questions, you can email their support service by sending your concern to also gives details of the location of support groups around the country as well as having an online support group. These can be great places for accessing information and support.

There is also a section on the Bodywhys site that allows you to look up a variety of professionals in different locations where you might be able to find support.

This article was last reviewed on 03 May 2017

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