Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that claims the life of thousands each year, especially among young women ages 15 to 24. While negative emotions like depression or anxiety have traditionally been linked to the disease, a new study puts an entirely different spin on things. According to research from Rutgers University in New Jersey, anorexia can also be driven by feelings of “skewed” positive emotions.
Pride and Weight Loss
…the mission to be thin becomes an obsession.
Anorexia is a psychological disorder that causes people to have a distorted sense of body image and a crippling fear of gaining weight. People struggling with anorexia avoid eating in an attempt to lose weight, and the mission to be thin becomes an obsession.
For two weeks, the Rutgers team monitored the emotional states of 118 women between the ages of 18 and 58. Each participant had previously been diagnosed with and treated for anorexia nervosa. They found that the women who were more inclined to adopt anorexia-like behaviors – such as laxative use, calorie restriction, constant body fat and weight checks, vomiting and excessive exercise – were the same ones who found it hard to recognize when their positive emotions were becoming distorted. For instance, many felt overly weight-conscious and undertook excessive exercise routines.
What’s more, the study findings also suggest that distorted positive emotions among people struggling with anorexia can stem from pro-anorexic websites. Known as “pro-ana” sites, these websites glorify and praise people who starve themselves to shockingly low weights. Skewed positive emotions are built and nurtured from the positive reinforcement women receive when they visit pro-ana websites. Associating praise with being extremely underweight, they develop and exhibit anorexic-type behaviors. With these websites offering a warped sense of reward and pride, people with eating disorders are encouraged to continue the vicious cycle of weight loss.
Known as “pro-ana” sites, these websites glorify and praise people who starve themselves to shockingly low weights.
Lead researcher Edward Shelby says the reason skewed positive emotions are causing eating disorders is that people tend to become exaggerated. In other words, they begin to feel a sense of happiness and pride about meeting their weight-loss goals or exceeding them. Shelby says that past studies have primarily focused on the link between negative emotions and anorexia, with “little analysis of empirical data that could help gain insight into how positive emotions are distorted by those suffering with the illness.” He hopes this study will bring about a better understanding of how positive emotions can also affect eating behaviors.
Balancing Food and Exercise
One of the biggest questions in treating anorexia nervosa is whether or not patients should be allowed to exercise. While this is an ongoing debate, there’s no denying that the endorphins released during and after exercise make people feel good. Shelby suggests that people in recovery from anorexia who enjoy running could take up a lower-impact activity. For example, yoga and tai chi are good options. Instead of losing weight, these exercises are based on strengthening the body and calming the mind.
Learn more about the dangerous side effects of eating disorders
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