Contributor: Dr. Lisa Palmer, PhD, LMFT, CHT, CRRTT is Program Director of The Renew Center of Florida.
It has long been thought that eating disorders primarily afflicts adolescents and young adults. However, in recent years there is a growing body of knowledge that middle-aged women are being affected mainly because of midlife changes stemming from health concerns; grief and loss issues; divorce and relationship strife; and empty nest syndrome. In fact, women ages 40-59 have the highest rates of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you are already prone to an eating disorder, you may be the most vulnerable during tumultuous times. Depression certainly sets the stage for the eating disorder to become active, especially if you had one in your youth, or managed to keep it hidden.
Why Might Women with Depression Turn to an Eating Disorder?
There are many reasons depression may cause you to turn to bad habits to cope and temporarily regain a false sense of control over your life. First of all, women in mid-life experience a tsunami of real life situations—hormonal changes, post-partum depression, and health concerns such as cardiovascular issues which has also been linked to depression.
The lure toward an eating disorder is only reinforced by sociocultural pressures to be youthful, and to defy the odds of aging by using unhealthy means to achieve unrealistic standards of beauty.
But it’s even more complicated than that. While many women who suffer from an eating disorder are focused on how things look on the outside, the truth is there is a lot more to be said about what is going inside the body and the mind…
Depression is not something to ever take lightly, and it’s often a sign of disruptions in parts of the brain affecting the way the person thinks, acts, and even perceives hunger and their own bodies. The brain is in fact the body’s computer, and the body and mind mutually influence each other. Lack of activity or blood flow to the brain; poor nutrition and deficiencies; or painful experiences change the way we think, act, and react.
If you struggle with an eating disorder, then you definitely know how quickly things can spiral out of control creating vicious cycles of impulsive and compulsive behaviors, a change in hunger signals, more depression, more anxiety, and then using food, lack of food, or other compensatory behaviors like purging as a way to cope and self-medicate.
Are You Masking the Real Problems?
When depression is there, society has a solution. All too often if you are feeling depressed society encourages you to mask and numb pain with medications while ignoring or treating the root issues. The result? Disaster in some cases, and in others no long-term improvements. Of course depression might be due to chemical imbalances, sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes the problem is the way your mind is processing what has happening to you. Mental health is also affected by poor physical health, hormonal changes, or other imbalances, such as vitamin deficiencies. Yes, vitamin deficiencies and poor nutrition can actually cause the body to mimic depressive states, such as with low vitamin D levels.
In some other cases, depression symptoms are actually emotional reactions usually because the person was in shock or in survival mode when a painful event happened, such as with post-traumatic stress. Perhaps also there are also real-life pressures—relationship turmoil; job stress; parenting concerns; financial issues taking a toll. All signs that you need to shift the way the engines are working, and reset the balance of your life.
In Battling the Blues: What to Do, and What Not to Do
The first step to beating depression and an eating disorder is literally to get the right help. Sounds simple, but it is not. Too many people find themselves self-medicating, looking for quick fixes, or getting the wrong advice when they are in the midst of a bad situation.
When medication is used as a sole coping mechanism in the long-term people do not seem any happier or healthier in life. Perhaps they feel more ‘numb’ or flat, or lose libido, or motivation, or feel a bit deadened, but often they lack vitality and do not wind up being any happier.
You need to find a treatment provider who treats human beings in an organic fashion, and treats you as individually and uniquely as your fingerprints. Someone who understands the intimate and delicate connections between mind, body, and your life. Someone with the therapeutic tools and know-how to help you reveal your strengths from within to naturally break vicious cycles, reactive responses, and self-defeating patterns all while helping you to nourish your brain and body, and assist you with the journey of actualizing your goals.
You need to be smart to begin with and make informed decisions about your health. First, stop judging yourself and realize that at one time or another we are all bound to experience depressive states. But, also realize that these depressive states do not have to become a life sentence!
While as human beings we are prone to painful experiences and growing pains of life, we are a