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“When I was overeating, I ate for many reasons. I ate because I was sad. I ate because I was angry. I ate because I was bored. I ate because I was fat. I ate because I was skinny. I ate because I was terrified of being fat again. I ate in reaction to the pressures put on me by society that had objectified me and reduced me to only a body, without feelings, wants and desires. I ate because I was anxious or fearful. I ate because I could not feel my own feelings. I ate because I felt like it. I ate because I didn’t know what else to do. I had no skills to be able to take care of myself and my feelings other than eat over them. I was terrified of being overwhelmed by them, by being ‘eaten up’ by them. I had spent most of my life running from them and I did not know how to stop running.” (Roark, 1998)
Eating disorders are psychiatric illnesses with both mental and physical components (Bruch, 1978). They have serious medical consequences which can disrupt growth and development (Polivy & Herman 2002). Anorexia Nervosa is a severe eating disorder, which is the most lethal of any psychiatric disorder (Oltmanns, T.F. & Emery, R.E., 2001). Approximately 5 to 20% of anorexics die, due to medical complications from starvation, such as organ failure or through suicide (APA, 1994; NEDA, 2002).
These devastating illnesses are brought on by a complex interplay of factors (Student Social Support, 2001). As yet, no single cause has been identified in anorexia nervosa (Polivy & Herman, 2002). There are many different factors, which may cause a person to suffer from an eating disorder; however, not all will apply to every sufferer (Eating Disorders, 1997). Current theories examine eating disorders from Biological, Familial and Socio-cultural perspectives (Bruch, 1978; Eating Disorders, 1997; 2001; Polivy & Herman, 2002; Karwautz, Nobis, Haidvogl, Wagner, Hafferl, Wöber & Friedrich). Persistent, intense body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem have often been identified as strong conducers of eating disorders (Fabian & Thompson, 1989; Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001). Recent evidence also suggests traumatic individual life experiences can increase one’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder (Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 2001; Polivy & Herman, 2002).
An ongoing study by Baker, Thomas, Tosunlar and Thomas is investigating how individuals suffering with anorexic nervosa process their emotions, compared to other mental health populations and healthy individuals. A paper will be published in due course, presenting these findings. Further research into these complex conditions is crucial, as an astoundingly high proportion of sufferers, approximately 20%, continue to relapse. However, recent advances in the U.S. suggest a reduction in the likelihood of relapse from around 75%, to less than 10%, if emotional issues are identified and sufficiently dealt with in therapy (Levenkron, 2001).
Up until recently, treatments have tended to focus more on the symptoms and weight gain, rather than the underlying causes (Normandi & Roark, 1998). Some approaches continue to underestimate the magnitude of the emotional component of these disorders. A study conducted by Ward, Ramsay, Turnbull, Steele, Steele and Treasure (2001) identified emotional processing difficulties as a risk factor for the development of anorexia nervosa. Thus, Baker et al.’s research may have implications for understanding the development of the disease and into the relationship between emotions and anorexia. In addition, this research aims to provide information to help devise more emotion focussed treatments for the future and hopefully, improve prognoses for those afflicted with an eating disorder.