Although eating disorders may appear to be all about food and weight, there’s a great deal of underlying psychology. Eating disorders can result from a number of complex emotional and psychological issues, including emotionally traumatic events, family relations, mood disorders and personal psychological issues.
Psychological Factor: Emotionally Traumatic Events
Emotionally traumatic events can trigger the onset of an eating disorder, particularly when other risk factors are present. Traumatic events may include transitions such as adjusting to a new school or going through a breakup. Many people experience these life events for the first time in their teenage years, which may partially explain the higher incidence of eating disorders in teens. Extremely traumatic events such as sexual abuse or the death of a loved one may also trigger an eating disorder. Controlling food intake and weight can be an unhealthy method of coping with unresolved grief, pain or stress.
Familial and Interpersonal Psychological Issues
Individuals who develop eating disorders often come from controlling and/or overly critical families. If a teenager has parents who are extremely controlling and overprotective, she may feel driven to assert control over her own life. The choice to control her eating habits can quickly spiral out of control and become a full-blown eating disorder.
Teenagers of parents who are critical and difficult to please often struggle with low-esteem and may strive to “succeed” in other areas, such as weight. This is especially true of families that overemphasize physical appearance and criticize their children’s appearance. In such cases, eating disorders reinforce themselves when weight loss produces positive comments and halts negative criticisms about weight.
Mood Disorders and Related Psychological Issues
Mood disorders are a common psychological factor in the development of eating disorders. Mood disorders and eating disorders appear to perpetuate a cause and effect cycle, in which mood disorders are both a cause and an effect of eating disorders. Some of the most common co-occurring psychiatric disorders include anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The results of long-term study on individuals with anorexia nervosa published in “The British Journal of Psychiatry” (2009) reveal that approximately 39 percent of individuals with the disorder have at least one other psychiatric disorder, with obsessive-compulsive disorder as the most predominant psychological factor. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009) reports that as many as 50 percent of binge eaters are depressed or have a history of depression.
Personal Psychological Issues
Since eating disorder sufferers often deal with a number of personal psychological issues, eating disorders may become a means of:
- Attempting to fulfill a desire for perfection
- Combating a sense of failure
- Coping with difficult emotions (e.g., anger, hopelessness or low self-worth)
- Exercising control over life
- Receiving comfort.
If you, or someone you love, have consistent appetite-related motivations based on psychological issues rather than physical needs, doctors advise that you seek medical help and treatment immediately.
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/eating-disorders/DS00294
National Eating Disorders Association. (2004). Factors that may contribute to eating disorders. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/information-resources/Factors%20that%20may%20Contribute%20to%20Eating%20Disorders.pdf
Smith, M. & Kovatch, S. (n.d.). Bulimia nervosa: Signs, symptoms, treatment and help. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://helpguide.org/mental/bulimia_signs_symptoms_causes_treatment.htm
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Binge eating disorder: Frequently asked questions. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/binge-eating-disorder.cfm#b
Wentz, E., Gillberg, I. C., Anckars