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Why Are More and More Doctors, Nurses, and Other “Helpers” Developing Eating Disorders?

The pressure on the community of healers in our nation is sky high. 

As teachers deal with over- crowded classrooms, under-funding, and the pressure to get all students ready for standardize testing above all else, medical professionals are dealing with long hours, case overload, and compassion fatigue. 

In an attempt to break down barriers to treatment, I’ve been studying various professions prone to eating disorders. After all, it’s a common phrase to hear, “eating disorders don’t affect people like me!” and that’s a thought we sometimes tell ourselves to keep from acknowledging the truth and getting help. 

Let’s debunk the myth and get more helpers on a path to wellness. 

I recently read this thread on Reddit “When I was in treatment for anorexia for 6 months earlier this year, I met quite a few nurses (more nurses than any other profession). Do you think this is a coincidence or does it seem like nursing attracts people who are prone to eating disorders/provides an environment where they can come to the surface?”

For one nurse, her eating disorder started out with sporadic lunch times and being too busy to sit down for meals through out the day.  Instead of listening to her body’s cues for hunger, she began skipping meals on a more frequent basis. Ultimately, when she found herself conducting google searches like, “What can I take to suppress my appetite?” she knew it was time to get help. 

It sounds counterintuitive that even though nurses and other skilled professionals in medical and helping fields have access to and knowledge of eating disorders, they could be more prone than the general population to develop them.  Doctors and other medical professionals learn to diagnose eating disorders and even to be familiar with the signs or symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Yet, many will fall into disordered eating without so much as a second glance from peers, family, or coworkers. 

Why?

 “While there is no link to certain occupations that trigger the development of eating disorders, it is important to consider how a person’s environment might be conducive to the progression of these diseases. Individuals who choose to enroll in medical school face a grueling and demanding road towards becoming a physician. Many medical students are overburdened with a high stress load that includes a demanding school/clinical load, increased amount of debt, and pressure towards succeeding in a rigorous field.” explains Eating Disorder Hope.

Rheumatology news reports: “... against the backdrop of a fat-phobic, diet-obsessed culture and those hard-driving personality traits, the uniquely stressful professional demands that are inherent in medical training and beyond may unmask disordered eating or sharply accelerate patterns left over from adolescence.”
If you’re a doctor, nurse, teacher, or on the front lines in other helping professions, ask yourself if you’ve been experiencing any of the following symptoms of compassion fatigue that could be causing disordered eating.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Suppression of emotions
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Alienation
  • Feelings of insanity
  • Loss of control
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Being overcome by grief or despair
  • Experiencing strange, painful or unfamiliar physical sensations in the body
  • Addictive or compulsive behaviors
  • Impairment in day to day functioning
  • Difficulty separating work and personal life
  • Dread of working with certain clients
  • Becoming serious or cynical

If you want to start moving in the right direction, here are some ways to start:

  • Listen to your body, it has a lot to say – let’s be honest, if you’re reading this article you’ve probably worried you may be suffering from some form of disordered eating. Listen to what your body is trying to tell you – that emotional eating, restricting or purging is just not good for it. Our bodies are powerful, self-sustaining, often if we just listen and feel we’ll recognize the cues that something is off. 
  • Listen to your heart – Your mind can play tricks on you, especially with an eating disorder.  For instance, it can tell you that you’re “fat” when you are dangerously underweight, or that your purging isn’t that dangerous to your body.  This eating disorder “voice” can quickly whisk us off on untruthful seas that are hard to navigate. Rather, try listening to your heart – your feelings and emotions.  Have you been depressed, anxious or stressed? Are you withdrawing from friends or loved ones?  Are you becoming weary of constantly counting calories and weighing yourself?  These are signs it’s time to seek support and help.
  • Stop judging and being hard on yourself – Qualities of perfectionism and drive most likely helped you successfully become a doctor, nurse, or teacher, but they can hurt you when it comes to an eating disorder. Do you judge every person who comes into your life, every passing stranger on their weight? Or on their size, their appearance or on their relationship with food? Do you judge your mom, your dad or your best friend on how much or how little they put into their bodies? Probably not… so you do not deserve the same treatment. 
  • Move towards a path of self-love and self-care – I get it, this is a hard step. When you are a helper it can feel so much easier to express endless amounts of compassion for others. Finding the energy to love and care for yourself is tough when you’ve spent months or years picking apart your every flaw.  But guess what? You can do it! Start with one small thought and one small action of self-care. You’ll get there. 

Remember, if you are a doctor, nurse, teacher or other helper who is anorexic, bulimic or an emotional eater, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Reach out and request care from a qualified eating disorder specialist to help jumpstart your journey to eating disorder recovery.  Treatment is confidential and private and will not harm your career – in fact, recovery will eventually help you be even better at what you do!
 

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