Eating Disorders in Christian Women

Eating Disorders in Christian Women Eating is a basic function of human existence, so if you live with an eating disorder, you understand how much it affects every facet of your life. Whether you struggle with the self-imposed restrictions of anorexia nervosa, the purging of bulimia, or a non-specified eating disorder, eating-related behaviors govern what, where, and when you do anything. If you’re a Christian woman (like Sarah, below), you may be wondering why you’re wrestling with this problem and whether help is available.

Sarah’s Story

Sarah is an attractive, slender, 21-year old junior at a Christian college. A finance major, Sarah was a straight-A student who was hoping to get into a prestigious MBA graduate program following college. Sarah was outgoing, athletic, and very active in church, sports, and volunteer work. On the surface, she looked like a responsible, well-adjusted young woman with a bright future.

What no one suspected, however, was the fact that Sarah had dark secret – she had been battling bulimia for the past 2 years. It began her freshman year when, like many college students, she began to put on the infamous “freshman 15”. The unfamiliar weight gain was frightening to her. Not only had she always taken great pride in her appearance, she also looked down on anyone who was overweight as undisciplined and self-indulgent.

She learned about self-induced vomiting and laxative use from some girls in her dormitory. Since food was a readily available and easy means of assuaging the constant stress of college, Sarah’s occasional binging and purging soon turned into a daily routine.

Deep down, Sarah knew she had a problem. She felt like a failure as a Christian – after all, shouldn’t her faith give her the strength to overcome this vicious cycle? Not surprisingly, these negative feelings perpetuated the problem.

Fortunately, Sarah found the courage to talk to her parents. They enrolled her in a residential Christian-based treatment program the summer before her senior year. Treatment helped her overcome the bulimia. She continued seeing a therapist twice a month during her senior year to make sure she didn’t fall back into destructive patterns.

Connection between Religion and Eating Disorders

Researchers offer a mixed view of how a woman’s religious affiliation or spirituality affects the development of eating disorders. One literature review found that while several studies showed no differences based on the religion of the patients, two others suggested that those of the Roman Catholic or Jewish faiths may have higher rates 1.

Potential faith-related triggers include:

  • Feelings of spiritual unworthiness: All Christians want to appear “right” in the eyes of God. Some women can take that pursuit too far. The desire to appear perfect in Christ’s eyes may include the perceived ability to control everything about the physical body, including eating.
  • Feeling unfaithful towards God: When we have trouble connecting with the Lord, it can create feelings of unfaithfulness. For example, you feel guilty because you expect that God wants you to forgive a spouse who betrayed you but you have a hard time doing so. Those intense negative emotions may spark reactions like eating restriction or severe overindulgence.
  • Feeling the need to punish yourself: As a Christian woman you may feel you’ve sinned and need to punish yourself through fasting, food restriction, or purging.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame about your sexuality: Guilt over perceived or actual promiscuity or guilt over a sexual preference can trigger the feelings of unworthiness that contribute to an eating disorder.

There might also be a host of non-spiritual reasons a Christian woman acquires one of these mental health conditions. For example, anorexia and bulimia have been linked to clinical depression. In some cases, long-term malnourishment negatively affects the mood, causing depressive symptoms. Other women may develop an eating disorder because they have depression.

Eating disorders are complex, and there are many other factors that might play a role in their development. Some people are vulnerable to intense family or societal pressures to look a certain way. Others develop an eating disorder in response to parents or caregivers who are overly controlling. Eating disorders can also be triggered by stressful situations, such as entering adolescence or the breakup of a relationship.

The Need for Immediate Treatment

Regardless of what causes an eating disorder, finding help sooner than later is essential, especially for anorexia nervosa. Anorexia demonstrates some of the highest death rates among all mental health disorders. One study that looked at over 6000 individuals suggests that those with anorexia have six times the morality rate of those without the disorder. Causes of death included starvation, suicide, and substance abuse. In addition, the study’s authors found an increased risk of death from natural causes, including cancer 2. Eating disorders may also cause severe mood swings, slowed thinking, dizziness, constipation, loss of menstrual periods, and malnourishment.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complicated conditions that often require treatment from qualified medical professionals. If you refuse to eat, show abnormal heart rhythm, or have other health complications, the first step in treatment may be hospitalization. The goal of the medical team will be to stabilize you physically before you move into the recovery stage.

While many secular centers offer treatment for eating disorders, you may want to consider a Christian-focused program that actively incorporates God into the healing process. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Christian treatment programs for eating disorders may be residential, outpatient, or a combination of both.

Eating disorder treatment programs have a strong psychological treatment component as well. Many utilize cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This particular type of therapy helps you identify and change destructive thinking patterns that trigger or reinforce the disordered eating and other dysfunctional behaviors. Family therapy is often a crucial part of the treatment process as well, as family dynamics often play a significant role in the development and exacerbation of eating disorders. Group therapy sessions are also common in many treatment programs.

If you have another mental health condition, like depression or anxiety, your treatment provider may prescribe an antidepressant or other medication to help alleviate symptoms and complement therapy. Christian eating disorder treatment centers often provide nutritional counseling as well.

In a faith-centered program, expect to find activities and exercises that help you reconnect with God and / or strengthen your relationship with Him. For example, you might attend regular prayer or meditation sessions, participate in daily devotional reflections, and attend pastoral counseling. You may be encouraged to reconnect with a spiritual community as well. The goal is to help you understand that your life has a greater purpose and move you toward closer communion with the Lord.

There’s another spiritual component that can be crucial to recovery: forgiveness. If your eating disorder is rooted in a trauma or neglect, it will be difficult to make yourself whole while harboring anger and resentment against those who have hurt you. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). Treatment should also include spiritual counseling that helps you work toward forgiving those who have wronged you. Letting go of that internalized anger can play a significant role in healing your spirit and overcoming your eating disorder.

An eating disorder recovery center will also offer training for real-life situations. You and a therapist may practice actual scenarios, such as going to a restaurant, to try out new coping skills and identify areas where you may need additional support or resources.

The final piece to finding lifelong recovery is a good aftercare plan. As you complete initial treatment, an eating disorder specialist will lay out a strategy for ongoing treatment, which often includes talk therapy. In addition, support groups, like Overeaters Anonymous or ANAD (operated by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), will provide you with a network of women who are struggling with the same concerns. Some groups, such as those based on a 12-step model, have a strong spiritual component that may give comfort and healing as well.

Overcoming an eating disorder is a challenge. However, there are skilled, caring mental health professionals, both Christian and secular, able to provide the support, tools, and resources needed to reclaim your life. The help you deserve is available.

References:

1https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/IssuesInReligionAndPsychotherapy/article/view/415/393
2 http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/mortality-and-eating-disorders