Past research claims that negative emotions, such as feeling depressed or angry, can fuel anorexia nervosa. But a new study from Rutgers University in New Jersey finds the eating disorder can also be encouraged by “skewed” positive emotions, such as feeling pride after weight loss.
The research team, led by Edward Selby, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers, recently published their findings in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Anorexia is a psychological disorder whereby an individual has a distorted body image and a fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia tend to avoid eating in an attempt to lose weight, and the mission to become thin becomes an obsessive one. It can lead to numerous health problems and even death.
Anorexia is most common among females, particularly those aged 15-24. In this population, the death rate from anorexia is 12 times higher than all other causes of death combined.
Selby notes that past studies have primarily focused on how negative emotions contribute to anorexia and says there has been “little analysis of empirical data that could help gain insight into how positive emotions are distorted by those suffering with the illness.”
With this in mind, he and his team monitored the emotional states of 118 women aged 18-58 who were being treated for anorexia nervosa.
During the 2-week period, the researchers found that the women who more frequently adopted anorexia-like behaviors – such as laxative use, calorie restriction, constant body fat and weight checks, vomiting and excessive exercise – were those who found it hard to recognize when their positive emotions were becoming distorted.
In other words, they would feel a sense of happiness and pride about meeting their weight-loss goals or exceeding them.
“What we think happens is that positive emotions become exaggerated and are rewarding these maladaptive behaviors,” explains Selby.
“Since only about one third of women recover after treatment, what we need to do is gain a better understanding of why these positive emotions become so strongly associated with weight loss rather than with a healthy association, such as family, school or relationships.”
He believes that these distorted positive emotions among women with anorexia may stem from “pro-anorexic” websites, where people with anorexia are often praised for their extreme weight loss.
But such positive emotions toward weight-loss behaviors, Selby says, can turn into a “vicious cycle” for women with anorexia; even after they meet their weight-loss goal, they may continue to lose weight, further putting their health at risk.
The team believes more research is needed in order to find a way to deflect positive emotions related to weight loss to other healthy activities, such as exercise.
Selby notes that while there is debate surrounding whether patients being treated for anorexia should be allowed to engage in physical activity, exercise does make them feel good.
Therefore, he suggests that an anorexia patient who enjoys running could instead adopt a group activity like yoga, which is more focused on strengthening the body rather than losing weight.
“Being in control is important for many of these women,” says Selby. “What we need to do is find a way to reconnect the positive emotions they feel in losing weight to other aspects of their lives that will lead to a more balanced sense of happiness.”
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that obese teenagers who lose weight are also at risk for anorexia and bulimia.