Friday, 9 March 2012

Teenagers Translated

I have great pleasure in publishing a guest post from Janey Downshire and Naella Grew - their thoughts on Eating Disorders:

"I am responding to your article on Supersize v Superskinny in which you mention sufferers tuning into this TV programme hoping to find helpful advice. 

Eating disorders are, as you say, biologically and brain based.  The brain has not developed the right wiring to manage emotions like fear and anxiety. The difficulty is that brain wiring, like a tree that puts down roots over a long period of time, is an intricate, tenacious and far reaching system.  What is good news for teenagers is that their brain wiring undergoes a massive refurbishment,  presenting an ideal time to make inroads, via improving brain circuitry, on psychological issues like anorexia. 

For me mainstream medicine's approach to recovery (of many psychological disorders) is missing a trick.  The focus, in the case of anorexia, is on diagnosing the symptoms, labelling disorders, assessment of food, calories, weight, body image and most treatment approaches encourage a rational "mind over matter" or medication approach.  CBT is a widely used psychological treatment, as is a draconian approach of having someone sit and monitor what you eat whilst in a clinic (they dont eat with you) at every mealtime.  I remain baffled as to how one feels anything other than a victim in an approach which is overly focused on weight and not the underlying emotional cause. 

People in the business of helping others should always have in their mind that The Problem is rarely The Problem.  

Therapy can end up being a frightening and painful process if there is an over-emphasis on fault and who is to blame, further compounding feelings of anxiety and guilt of the sufferer.  Parents must accept that they form a vital part in a child's life experiences and in how their child has developed an over anxious alarm system, it has everything to do with them but it is not helpful to look backwards and point fingers, now is the time to look forwards to solutions - together.  What is hard is that where emotions are running high, it is hard to engage rationally. 

But anorexia sufferers need to get back in the driving seat, feel empowerment and find a way to look positively to the journey ahead.  I believe that "knowledge is king" for all concerned and understanding how the brain works, building self-awareness, learning self management techniques are valuable tools which help people to re-gain control in order to start to feel able to cope with whatever life throws at them. Eating disorders, like their addictive companions alcohol, drugs and self harming, are coping strategies.  They have become the crutch with which people are dependent upon to calm their underlying emotional disease and they actually work - by re-balancing the body's biochemistry.  Anxiety/fear or rage are the emotions upon which eating disorders are based.  The body responds to daily experiences by producing biochemicals triggered by the body's stress response system.  Someone who cannot tolerate uncertainty or manage problems produces too much "bad" cortisol,  whereas starving the body of carbs gives the brain a rush of good chemicals and re-dresses the balance.  But we all need to learn healthy ways of managing our inner anxiety regulation dial, thereby controlling the flood gates.

We are incredibly fortunate to have access to work done by brain scientists, which has given anyone involved in psychological treatments, education or health a vital link in understanding how to help. 

Parents of children need to understand about stress and anxiety because children today are so vulnerable to disease.  Life for young people today is stressful and an inability to manage this leads to depression, eating disorders and other coping strategies.  Many normal parenting strategies have the capacity to make a child psychologically healthy, but on the flip side many well meaning parents are unwittingly causing long term damage to their child by not understanding how to handle simple things like tantrums and boundaries.

Everyone involved with children should, by law, have simple lessons in brain science, it would make a world of difference."

Please note: Eating disorders are caused by a number of biological factors - and certainly not by parents! Parents have an essential role to play in recovery. Please also see the F.E.A.S.T website for more information. 
Written by Janey Downshire who runs Teengers Translated with her colleague Naella Grew


  1. Is the Please Note Janey Downshire's comment or someone else's? If so, whose? Thank you.

    1. Hi there, the Please Note comment was added by myself based on research that I have carried out from places like the FEAST website - which itself gets its facts from scientific based research. What are your views?

  2. Are teenagers now really more pressured than ever before? I suspect this has been the claim for ever and a day, but I'm not sure that it is accurate. What I am sure of, is that teenagers today are invariably very, very spoilt, and very self-indulgent. Just an observation but I wonder if it carries any relevence?

  3. Miranda - you knew I was going to write a comment! Perhaps this is the best way to explain it

    What I am trying to explain here is that eating disorders are not a matter of choice, or self-inflicted. A genetic predisposition to an eating disorder goes into full overdrive when there is a weight loss. Now what causes the weight loss - a diet, illness, a growth spurt, puberty, etc) is immaterial. Ergo, whether the weight loss occurred because you had cancer or your sports coach put you on a diet, or you grew 5 inches overnight or you have a rotten set of parents, is immaterial really. Once the wheels are turning, the cart is barrelling down the hill and no amount of talking to it is going to make it stop.

    There are, as always, two sides to every coin. Firstly, there are a whole heap of people who have truly dreadful upbringings, terrible parents, abuse, emotional and physical trauma etc who never develop an eating disorder. There are also good parents (there is no such thing as a perfect parent!) who bring up their children in happy, stable, homes, who don't diet, aren't food phobic and are certainly non-abusive and their children still develop an eating disorder.

    Many paths to a destination.

  4. In response to Charlotte (for some reason the page isn't letting me reply directly):

    I certainly agree about the genetic predisposition to developing eating disorders, but I'm curious about how well-supported the idea of "weight loss triggers ED" is. (I'm familiar with the Minnesota Study, but it's somewhat outdated and, as far as I know, reasonably unusual.) If this were true, wouldn't there be a much larger percentage of eating disorders in regions experiencing famine? I understand that EDs are not exclusive to first-world countries and that they do exist across socioeconomic, cultural, and national boundaries, but I've never encountered any literature suggesting they're significantly MORE prevalent in areas facing prolonged food shortages. Additionally, how would this play into disorders that don't include a marked weight loss? Would you posit that everyone developing bulimia has experienced a weight loss prior to onset?

    I'm in no way attacking your explanation, in case it's unclear--I'm genuinely quite curious about all of this. Tracing the elements that lead to the development of an ED is fascinating to me, and I'm happy to see any idea that doesn't fall back on either "blame the bad parents" or "blame the evil beauty industry".