Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder marked by a strong fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, and self-imposed starvation that results in significant weight loss. It is a complex condition with multiple causes, including genetic, biological, psychological, and social factors. Psychological factors, on the other hand, play a significant role in the development and maintenance of anorexia. Some of the psychological causes and contributing factors are as follows:
According to available research, people suffering from eating disorders commonly have low self-esteem, which contributes to both the development and maintenance of the condition. This is because many people with anorexia have a constant desire for external validation. They may believe that achieving a specific body shape or weight will make them more socially acceptable and boost their self-esteem.
Anorexia is often associated with perfectionism. Individuals with anorexia may hold unrealistically high standards for themselves when it comes to their body and physique. This might even lead them to have strict and almost unattainable goals for themselves regarding their eating habits as well.
Body Image Issues
Research has shown that people suffering from eating disorders are often dissatisfied with their bodies. The societal pressure to have ‘thin’ and ‘ideal’ bodies can make people feel unhappy with their bodies and worried about their weight, contributing to the development of anorexia nervosa.
Cognitive flexibility refers to a person’s ability to switch between different cognitive tasks or mental processes. It involves the capacity to adapt one’s thinking and behavior in response to changing situational demands. Anorexia nervosa has been consistently linked with poor cognitive flexibility, making it difficult for suffering people to change their thoughts regarding their body and diet.
Certain childhood experiences can contribute to the development of anorexia in adulthood. These are experiences of trauma, abuse, and being a subject of teasing/bullying. People who report being teased about their appearance or body shape tend to have a higher risk of developing anorexia. Other experiences include parents or family members setting ideal body standards for their children or shaming them for their weight or eating habits.
Self-directedness refers to the ability to shape our behaviors in line with our personal values and long-term goals. People with anorexia often exhibit lower levels of self-directedness, which can lead to impulsive actions that help to address immediate concerns, such as skipping meals to address body image issues. Although this may provide temporary relief, it hinders long-term recovery and perpetuates the illness.
Other Mental-Health Conditions
The development of anorexia among individuals has also been linked to other mental health conditions. Research suggests that almost 8% of people with anorexia could have autism symptoms as well. Additionally, anorexia has also been linked to obsessive-compulsive traits, with research suggesting that almost 10% of patients with anorexia also receive a diagnosis of OCD. Conversely, about 11% of individuals primarily diagnosed with OCD have a coexisting eating disorder. There is also an overlap of symptoms between the two, as people with anorexia often spend a lot of time obsessing about their body, weight, and eating habits, leading to compulsive rituals like exercising and dieting.
Need for control
Research suggests that anorexia can be a way for individuals to regain a sense of control over their lives, especially when they feel overwhelmed or unable to manage other aspects of their lives. Restricting food intake may be a way to exert control over their bodies.
It is critical to recognize that anorexia is a multifaceted condition influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors. It can be a difficult condition to manage, both physically and emotionally. Anorexia can be treated with a combination of psychotherapy, diet, and social support. If you or someone you know is suffering from anorexia, it is advisable to seek treatment as soon as possible.
- Anorexia Nervosa and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder | Psychology Today. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/eating-disorders-the-facts/202301/anorexia-nervosa-and-obsessive-compulsive-disorder
- Anorexia Nervosa: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Diagnosis, Health Risks. (n.d.-a). Eating Recovery Center. Retrieved October 18, 2023, from https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/conditions/anorexia
- Anorexia Nervosa: What It Is, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment. (n.d.-b). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved October 18, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9794-anorexia-nervosa
- Brockmeyer, T., Febry, H., Leiteritz-Rausch, A., Wünsch-Leiteritz, W., Leiteritz, A., & Friederich, H.-C. (2022). Cognitive flexibility, central coherence, and quality of life in anorexia nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders, 10(1), 22. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-022-00547-4
- Duncan, T. K., Sebar, B., & Lee, J. (2015). Reclamation of power and self: A meta-synthesis exploring the process of recovery from anorexia nervosa. Advances in Eating Disorders, 3(2), 177–190. https://doi.org/10.1080/21662630.2014.978804
- Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2002). Causes of Eating Disorders. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 187–213. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135103
- Risk Factors. (2017, February 21). National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/risk-factors
- The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and OCD Part of the Spectrum. (n.d.). International OCD Foundation. Retrieved October 18, 2023, from https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/expert-opinion-eating-disorders-and-ocd/
- Westwood, H., & Tchanturia, K. (2017). Autism Spectrum Disorder in Anorexia Nervosa: An Updated Literature Review. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19(7), 41. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0791-9