Eating disorders can, and do, effect a whole range of people. The stereotypical image of a thin, white teenage girl is just that, a stereotype. The fact is, anyone, of any age, gender or ethnicity, can develop an eating disorder. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to diagnosis. What there is, however, are certain characteristics and personality traits that make people more prone to developing eating disorders. I will explore those factors in today’s blog post.
Common shared characteristics of people prone to developing eating disorders:
- Harm avoidance- People who suffer from eating disorders, particularly Anorexia Nervosa, tend to have higher levels of ‘harm avoidance’ than the general population. ‘Harm Avoidance’ refers to the predisposition people have to worry an excessive amount. This excessive fear can present itself outwardly in shyness, with the feelings of uncertainty and pessimism often resulting in people of this nature being perceived by others as overly serious, but the reality is, these type of people are just, in a way, ‘scared of the unknown.’ They prefer routine over impulsivity, and seek this sense of control across many areas of their lives.They can therefore be viewed as being largely ‘inflexible’, cautious, and rule-driven.
- Neuroticism- In a study measuring the personality types of a range of people, some of whom had an eating disorder, and others who did not, results found that people with eating disorders have a higher level of neuroticism in comparison to the general population. This means that people with eating disorders are more likely to lack emotional stability, causing them to suffer from negative feelings, such as depression, anxiety and, self-doubt. Their poor emotional stability can be concluded as the thing that causes many eating disorder sufferers to turn to food as a coping mechanism, using it to suppress/’numb’ emotions. But, the question is, what comes first, Depression, or Eating Disorders? Is it a cause and effect relationship, or is it simply a coincidence? (look out for my next blog post,where I will explore this very question, in detail.)
- Conscientiousness- Defined as being a quality whereby one ‘wishes to do their work well and thoroughly’, eating disorder sufferers tend to have high levels of conscientousness. They might describe themselves as being a ‘perfectionist’, since they value working hard to achieve their goals in a competitive, ‘success-driven’, and organised manner.’Self-oriented’ perfectionism would be a more appropriate description however, as these people tend to possess unreasonably high standards for themselves, but not others. This fuels their neuroticism, in which their self-doubt and self-crtitical nature tends to ‘sky rocket’ when they fail to meet the unachievable standards they have set for themselves. They constantly feel as though they are ‘lacking’, in a constant cycle of internally derived judgement, unable to live up to their unrealistic expectations.
The personality traits described above, can all be classified, under the umbrella term, as being ‘Obsessive Compulsive.’ This is why there has been longstanding debates across treatment teams for eating disorder patients for decades, with some people arguing that eating disorders are a type of OCD, therefore the two conditions essentially go hand in hand. These people therefore believe that all people with eating disorders should also receive treatment for OCD in order to recover, which is something that I too believe should be the case.
When considering the prospect that OCD and eating disorders go ‘hand-in-hand’, this might explain why eating disorder sufferers usually become obsessed with food and their bodies. They hyper-focus on this one insignifcant aspect of their life, because to them, it is the most important thing in their world. Because of their mental ‘inflexibility’ brought on by harm avoidance, the thought of recovery and ‘letting go’ of the very thing that their life centres around,is simply unthinkable.
****To end this post, I just want to add that the characteristics I have discussed here are consistent with the belief that eating disorders are a genetic disorder, something pre-determined from birth, as opposed to the belief that eating disorders, like many mental illnesses, are developed over time, resulting from many external factors such as one’s childhood, cultural experiences, etc. To read more about the debate around genetics vs environment, I invite you to check out one of my old posts from last year: portfolioofhope.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/are-eating-disorders-heriditary/****