Psychological Causes of an Eating Disorder.
Psychologists work with the mind, helping people to see things in different ways that might benefit them.
Psychiatrists are doctors. They prescribe drugs and other treatments they believe will reduce the stress in people’s lives and clarify their thoughts so they can move forward constructively.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists look for background risk factors and causes for the confusion and distress that their clients/patients may suffer. Psychologists tend to look at the emotional and physical environment that may contribute to the developing problem. Psychiatrists tend to look at thought processes and other mental mechanisms that have gone awry. Then they try to fix them.
Psychologists look at childhood times as being formative. Psychiatrists look at family history, examining whether there might be a genetic predisposition.
Where eating disorders are concerned, I see three background influences:
genetic predisposition. My family is riddled with people suffering from one kind of compulsive behaviour or another.
Emotional trauma. We all experience traumatic events at some level. Some people have more resilience than others. When the response to a traumatic event reaches a tipping point, a craving for mood-alteration is set up.
Then, through a process of disappointing or magical discovery, we find out that some substances or behaviours don’t work but others hit the spot.
The crucial issue is that eating disorder behaviour goes primarily with the individual. You can’t make someone develop an eating disorder, or develop an addictive tendency of any kind, unless that person has an addictive nature to begin with.
Developing a temporary dependency is a different matter. Use a mood-altering substance or process for long enough, and sufficiently intensely for it to become a habit, and you will develop withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop. But you will not then crave to go back to your former behaviour. Only people who have addictive natures will do that.
For us one ‘hit’ is never enough and a thousand never too many. ‘Normies’ are not like that. We hope that we can ‘take or leave’ – and we do everything we can to prove that. But we fail. We can go completely abstinent but, once we start, we cannot predict what will happen to our consumption of that mood-altering substance or process in the rest of the day.
The psychological flaw in any addictive behaviour is therefore inside us. Environmental influences can stimulate it but they cannot send ‘normies’ down the addictive route.
‘The empty nest syndrome’ describes people – often women – who may have addictive natures but have not suffered emotionally traumatic events until their children grow up and leave home. Then they hit the bottle or the benzodiazepines of other pharmaceutical drugs. Then they say ‘My doctor gave them to me because I need them.’ as the explanation of their psychological and chemical dependency. Their psychological predisposition had always been there. But it was a sleeping tiger. Once woken up, it followed the law of the jungle.
For most of us with addictive natures, there are many traumatic events in our addictive family. We come to include them as facts if life in our psychological make-up. We are sometimes woken up to addictive cravings at a very early age.
With eating disorders, the age at which people develop an active outlet will vary. People with anorexia nervosa will often have problems in their teens. They may have dieted with religious fervour. Those with bulimia will get into difficulty with weights and shapes and bodily perceptions and preoccupations in their 20s and 30s. And overeaters will take off in their 40s and 50s. But there are no hard and fast rules. Frequently people will wander through all three outlets at different times of life, although some remain stuck in just one.
Different psychological stressors may occur at different times and stimulate one or another outlet. For example, peer pressure can have an enormous influence. Cultural influences in society can also be very telling. Being overweight is some countries is seen as evidence of wealth and health. Thinness may be feared. Whereas the opposite might be believed in other countries.
Social attitudes, and even clinical perceptions, vary from one compulsive outlet to another. Anorexia is seen as a sad fixation, bulimia as strange stupidity and overeating as pathetic loss of control. Yet I see them all as varying presentations of the same generic eating disorder. I’ve treated over 1,500 in-patients with eating disorders so I have a fair bit of clinical experience to back up my perceptions. I may understand rather more than someone who says ‘I know a girl who…’.
And that illustrates an important point. Everyone on God’s earth knows the psychological causes of eating disorders and every other form of addictive or compulsive behaviour. I do not share their confidence that other people – pundits all, regardless of experience – have in their particular viewpoints. I’m ready and willing to learn from anybody.
Please telephone me on 07540281820 if you are concerned that you yourself, or someone you know, has psychological disturbance leading to an eating disorder or any other compulsive behaviour.