I’ve written quite a few blog posts on eating disorders yet never tackled one of the questions people with eating disorders and their loved ones often ask – why? Why did I (or my son, daughter, brother, sister) develop an eating disorder? Inherent in this question is oftentimes the desire to gain some sense of control over the eating disorder – the assumption that if I knew why I developed an eating disorder, I could fix it, get rid of it, etc.
The truth is that eating disorders are not that simplistic. There is no simple answer to the question of why someone develops an eating disorder. Furthermore, knowing the why isn’t going to lead to recovery in and of itself. That’s not to say that gaining awareness of the why of an eating disorder isn’t helpful. It’s helpful in that it can be a source of information – of increased awareness of the complex factors that led to your eating disorder and how the eating disorder is functioning in your life. Understanding the why of an eating disorder can also start chipping away at the shame of having an eating disorder which can be powerful in the recovery process. So let’s look at the five “whys” that can contribute to someone developing an eating disorder (ED):
- Biology: Eating disorders are not a choice. People who suffer from eating disorders are not doing it simply to get attention or out of vanity. The personality traits and neurochemistry (think anxiety and depression) that some people are born with may predispose them to an ED. Research has shown that eating disorders run in families so if someone in your family has had an ED, you are at greater risk of developing an ED yourself. It’s important to note that not everyone with a genetic predisposition develops an ED – an ED is a result of biology and environment coming together to create the perfect storm for an ED to develop.
- Temperament: Temperament is hard-wired from birth and research demonstrates that particular temperaments and traits put people at risk of developing an ED. For example, if you are a person that doesn’t like change or conflict and go to extreme lengths to avoid it; you would be considered high on the trait of “harm avoidance” which is one of the traits linked to ED’s. Think about your kids or your siblings – do they all have the same temperament? Was that temperament evident from a young age? This speaks to the fact that temperament is genetic. There is no right or wrong temperament to be born with – it’s about understanding your individual temperament and how it shows up in your life through your actions.
- Relationship Dynamics: We all have relationships with other people be it family members, friends, teachers, coaches, etc. Relationships can be a source of security, strength, and confidence but they can also be stressful, full of change, and conflictual. Complex relationship dynamics that are difficult to manage can factor in to development of an ED, particularly if the person doesn’t like change or conflict (i.e. high harm avoidance).
- Trauma/Loss: Research shows that 30% of people with ED’s have experienced trauma or loss in their life. What complicates this statistic is that people who develop ED’s oftentimes have a heightened sensitivity to traumatic experiences when they occur due to their biology (i.e. genetic factors, temperament).
- Culture: We live in a culture that idealizes being thin and fit. We are bombarded with “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” messages and images on a daily basis via TV, magazines, social media, advertisements, and social interactions – just to name a few. Awareness of shape and size begins at a very young age as do dieting behaviors which can serve as a gateway into developing an ED. Research has shown that 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat and 51% of 9-10 year olds felt better when dieting.
So why is this important? The shame and guilt that come along with an eating disorder oftentimes stands in the way of people getting help and support for themselves or their loved ones. They may think that the eating disorder is just a phase or something the person is choosing to do and therefore can choose to stop. Parents may fear that they will be blamed for their son or daughter’s eating disorder. It’s important to understand that eating disorders are complex mental health illnesses and regardless of why someone develops an ED – it’s important to seek out professional help and support if you or someone you love is struggling. Full recovery is possible and while insight into understanding the why of the ED may be part of the recovery process; behavioral action is necessary for change to occur. Remember that eating disorders are not about vanity or choice; there are many factors that lead to the development of an eating disorder including biology, temperament, relationship dynamics, trauma/loss, and culture.
Catherine S. Tilford, MA, NCC, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor offering individual, couples, and group therapy services in Westminster, CO and specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating, body image, depression, anxiety, and personal growth. Please feel free to contact Catherine with any questions or to schedule an appointment.
Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net