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A guide for young people Anorexia

If you’re struggling with anorexia, or you think you might be, you're not alone. Anorexia can affect people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. It is a serious condition, but support is available.

What is anorexia nervosa?


Anorexia (also known as anorexia nervosa) is a type of eating disorder. People with anorexia generally try to keep their weight low by limiting how much food they eat, doing too much exercise, or both.

They may have “rules” about what they eat, or when and where they eat. And they may think they are larger than they are and worry about gaining weight.

Many people think anorexia only affects girls, but that’s not true. Roughly 25% of people who experience eating disorders like anorexia are male. The truth is that eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or background.

Anorexia is a serious condition, but, with the right help, you can recover and take back your life.

The reality is, living with that anorexic voice in your head is so frustrating. It’s a constant battle between your best friend and your worst enemy all combined into one.
Hope Virgo

The signs and symptoms of anorexia

The symptoms of anorexia are both physical and mental. A change in your feelings or behaviours can be the first sign.

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Feelings and behaviours

  • trying to lose weight by and/or exercising too much
  • thinking a lot about calories and what food you eat
  • developing strict rules around eating and mealtimes
  • trying to control your weight by making yourself sick, using laxatives, or over-exercising (“purging”)
  • feeling panicky about eating in front of others or having a big meal
  • feeling fat and scared to gain weight, even though people tell you you're too thin
  • obsession with body image, weighing/checking your body and comparing your body to others
  • losing interest in things you usually enjoy
  • feeling low in mood and energy
  • feeling more irritable than usual
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Physical changes

  • losing lots of weight quickly
  • irregular periods or periods stopping altogether
  • loss of interest in sex or feeling unable to enjoy sex
  • poor circulation and feeling cold all the time
  • growing new downy hair on your body
  • poor sleep and concentration
  • bloating and digestive issues such as constipation
  • effects on hormone levels and puberty

Just because you experience one or more of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you’re definitely affected by anorexia nervosa. It’s important to speak to a doctor to get a full diagnosis.

Your symptoms might not match a diagnosis for anorexia nervosa. If this is the case, you might be diagnosed with atypical anorexia, or another eating disorder. This may make you feel like what you’re experiencing is less valid, but that’s not the case – you deserve to get help and feel better.

When I was really struggling with an eating disorder, I was not myself. Everything I wanted to do, say or think felt out of my hands.

Getting help and support for anorexia

If you think you might be struggling with anorexia, it’s really important that you talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling. This could be a friend, relative, counsellor or teacher. It can be very difficult to accept that you have a problem, but anybody can struggle with anorexia and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. Talking about what you’re experiencing is the first step to getting better.

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It’s important that you also get help from a doctor. You can start by seeing your GP. They aren’t experts in anorexia and may not be able to treat you themselves, but they can help you get the support you need and deserve.

This may mean they refer you to a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) specialist eating disorder service, a psychiatrist or another expert who can help you. If you do not receive a referral to a specialist service, it’s okay to ask for one.

It can feel scary speaking to you GP about your mental health, but we have some tips and advice that can help.

How to speak to your GP
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If you are in education, you may be able to access support through your school, college or university counselling service. Speak to whoever is in charge of student wellbeing at your school, college or university for more information.

In England, young people under the age of 18 can also refer themselves to community eating disorder services, although some services have suspended self-referral due to high demand. You can find your nearest eating disorder support service via the NHS website.

Find your nearest eating disorder support service

Swan online support group

  • Sharing your experiences with others can help you to feel less alone, find support and get better.

    Swan groups are a welcoming online space for anyone who has (or thinks they have) anorexia. The sessions are run and moderated by Beat staff, and offer a confidential and safe space to share your experiences with other people in similar situations.

    They run every Monday from 6:45pm-7:45pm and you can attend as often or as little as you like.

Treating anorexia

Play Video: “I never thought I had an eating disorder” - Hope Virgo’s journey to recovery from anorexia “I never thought I had an eating disorder” - Hope Virgo’s journey to recovery from anorexia

Treatment usually begins by assessing how much anorexia is affecting your physical health. In most cases, you can stay at home during your treatment. If your weight is very low, you might be admitted to hospital to get your strength back up.

Anorexia is connected to distorted self-image, low self-esteem and wanting to lose weight. If things feel out of control and difficult to deal with, restricting what you eat could also be a way of feeling more in charge. But this feeling does not last - restricting your food intake is not a long-term solution. It’s important that you get help so that you can develop other coping mechanisms to deal with difficult feelings like this.

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Treatments may vary according to your age. Your treatment could involve cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), group and family therapy, working with a dietician, and support from a mental health team. You'll be supported to make sure you're getting enough to eat and learn what nutrition your body needs. You may also be offered medication if your doctor thinks you are also struggling with depression, anxiety or another mental health condition.

Your guide to support
The first, and probably most important thing, is to tell someone you trust that you are struggling. Don’t go through this alone.

How to support a friend struggling with anorexia

It can be difficult to know what to do when your friend is struggling with an eating disorder. It’s normal to feel worried, confused, frustrated or powerless when trying to help someone close to you. But there are things that you can do to support your friend.

If your friend has opened up to you about anorexia, it’s important to remember that this was probably difficult for them to do, and is a sign that they trust you.

One of the best ways to support a friend struggling with anorexia is by listening. It can be tough to hear what your friend is saying about themselves and what they eat, but try not to advise or criticise. Let them know that you understand it may have been scary to open up, but you’re glad they told you. You don’t need to have the answers; just make sure that they know you are there for them.

Try to let your friend know that their experience is valid. Remind them that it’s okay and acknowledge that what they are going through sounds very difficult, but they are not alone. Instead of making assumptions or trying to interpret their behaviour, you can ask them how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

It’s normal to feel angry or frustrated about anorexia, especially if you can see the negative impact it’s having on your friend, but try to be as patient and understanding as you can. Don’t try to force your friend to change their behaviour as it could make them withdraw from you. It might take time for your friend to accept that they are struggling with anorexia or that their behaviour is harming them.

You can ask your friend what support they would like from you. This could be going with them to a doctor’s appointment, finding helpful resources or how you can support them at mealtimes. They may have a preferred and safe way of speaking about anorexia, such as referring to it as a third person. This can help you both recognise anorexia as separate to your friendship, and that no one is to blame.

While supporting your friend, you can encourage them to speak to an adult they trust, such as a relative, carer, teacher or counsellor. They can help your friend find the support they need. It’s important for someone in their life to be aware of what is happening.

Your friend has already made the first step towards recovery by talking to you. You can also advise them to speak to a doctor or a school, college or university nurse for professional help. There are also a number of helplines and online resources at the bottom of this page that you can recommend. This can be one of the most difficult steps towards recovery and your friend might not want to seek help, but it’s important to try.

Your friend might not want to join in group activities, but it’s important to keep asking them and stay in contact. It will reassure them that you are there and remind them that you value their friendship. You could also arrange activities that won’t be stressful or involve food or exercise, such as playing a game, watching your favourite film or series, or arts and crafts such as painting or drawing.

It’s important to avoid discussing weight, body shape, food or diets around your friend struggling with anorexia. Try not to focus or comment on their appearance, as how someone looks on the outside doesn’t always reflect how they feel inside. This may trigger difficult emotions for your friend and they may misinterpret what you have said.

Whether your friend has opened up about having anorexia or not, if you are worried about them and don’t know what to do, talk to someone you trust. This could be a relative, carer, teacher or school, college or university nurse. You can also find a number of helplines and online resources at the bottom of this page.

Looking after your own wellbeing

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to support your friend in ways that make you feel uncomfortable. You can let your friend know how you would like to support them, while looking after your own mental health.

It can be distressing to hear that your friend is struggling with anorexia and you might feel like it’s your responsibility to help them. But you can always speak to someone you trust to get more support. It’s also okay to encourage your friend to speak to someone else, such as a relative, teacher or counsellor, if you are worried that you won’t be able to support them.

Remember that by telling an adult that you think there might be a problem, you are not being a bad friend - in fact, you are being the best friend you could possibly be by helping them and spotting the signs of a relapse early before it spirals out of control.

More help and advice

We have information and advice on a range of subjects, which you may find helpful.

Get help now

Where to get help

See below for a list of organisations and helpline services that have information to support you.

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