Are Eating Disorders Contagious?

Here where I live in New Hampshire, there are six seasons: Winter, Mud Season, Black Fly Season, Construction Season, Peak Foliage and Flu Season.

Now that it’s time for the annual “flu shot” or more formally, the Influenza vaccine, I’m thinking a lot about contagion: my own and that of others.

Influenza is contagious.

Today I asked my search engine this question:

Me: “What’s the best way to avoid catching the flu?”

The Internet:  “Move to the tropics. The virus is nearly non-existent in tropical climates. It thrives in cold weather with low humidity”.

Me: “Umm…What else?”

The Internet: “Wash your hands. Avoid sick people. Remind people to cover their mouths when they cough, throw away used tissues.  Disinfect everything.”

Me: “Should I get a flu shot?”

The Internet: “Yes. Especially if you are in a higher risk population. Are you younger than five? Older than 65? Do you have a weakened immune system? Do you feel obligated to lower the risk of contracting the Influenza virus for others by being vaccinated? Then get the flu shot.

Miriam Webster defines contagion like this: a contagious disease, the transmission of a disease by direct or indirect contact, a disease-producing agent (virus), a poison, a contagious influence, quality, or nature, a corrupting influence or contact, a rapid communication of an influence (a doctrine or emotional state), an influence that spreads rapidly.

Are eating disorders contagious?

In theory, yes. Eating disorders can spread between us through no fault of our own – we are social beings, some of us with especially vulnerable genetics – who live in a world full of potentially dangerous messaging, misinformation and profit motives. We have no vaccines, but there is much we can do to maintain our own health and support the health of others.

A conversation with a well-educated internet might go like this:

Me: “What’s the best way to avoid developing an eating disorder?”

Well-educated Internet: “Transport yourself to the Island of Fiji, to a time before television was introduced to its residents. At that time, they had virtually no eating disorder cases in its population – they accepted their bodies as beautiful, didn’t have rigid food rules and did little comparing of themselves to others.

(Int J Eat Disord. 2014 Nov;47(7):727-37. doi: 10.1002/eat.22349. Epub 2014 Aug 19)

Me: “Umm. What else?”

Well-Educated Internet: “Avoid trying to change your body size and shape by any extreme means. Don’t diet or take bodybuilding supplements. Try not to believe any source that tells you that your happiness/wellness/worthiness is to be found in conforming to a narrow beauty ideal. Make self-care a priority – especially during times of transition and stress.”

Me: “How can I protect myself?”

Well-Educated Internet: “Seek support for any trauma you’ve suffered. Seek treatment for mental and physical illnesses you experience. Understand your own risk by learning about your family’s medical history, if you can access such information. Get enough sleep and do your best to avoid comparing yourself to others. We are all unique – made up of hundreds of thousands of different genetic sequences – so basing our worth on how alike our external appearances are to those of other people is harmful and a waste of our precious time.”

It’s always Prevention season; and though we do not yet have vaccines for eating disorders, there is much we can do. Prioritizing self-care is a universal prevention, and is powerful in the face of contagion.

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Stephanie Haines, M.Ed., CHES, is the prevention education specialist at FREED. Her role is to provide prevention education to school communities including students, teachers and administrators regarding eating disorders, body image and related topics. Before joining FREED, Stephanie was a Senior Prevention Specialist at FCD: Prevention Works!, part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation located in Newton, MA. Here, she provided substance abuse prevention education to students on 5 continents. She continues her work with FCD by training school personnel in prevention strategies. Earlier in her career she was a licensed certified occupational therapy assistant in New Hampshire. Stephanie is a member of the National Wellness Institute and is a member of a number of training and prevention-focused committees. Stephanie earned her master’s degree from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where she served as a graduate assistant to Margaret Burckes-Miller, founder and director of the university’s Eating Disorders Institute. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Granite State College and an associate’s degree from New Hampshire Technical College.

 

 

 

2018-10-15T17:50:48+00:00

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