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What causes eating disorders?

Updated: Apr 19

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There will always be a number of factors in the development of an eating disorder and each individual will be affected by a unique combination.

There is never one simple, single cause, although sometimes there may be one factor in a person’s life which plays a particularly prominent role in his or her eating disorder. If you need specialised support, please don't hesitate to contact our team.

An eating disorder, at its root, is the expression of emotional distress and means of managing difficult and painful feelings. Anorexia is an eating disorder which typically occurs during adolescence, so emotional difficulties are likely to encompass issues at school, trouble with friendships, parental conflict and struggles coping with puberty. Of course, many young people face these sorts of challenges without developing eating disorders; there must be other factors involved which trigger disordered eating.

Do personality types play a part in developing an eating disorder?

There are currently a number of studies exploring whether certain personality types may be more predisposed to an eating disorder. The theory is that young people with more rigid thinking styles and perfectionist traits may be more at risk of responding to difficulties through their eating. Young people who develop anorexia frequently express how losing weight provided the sense of control they felt was lacking in every other area of their lives.

Other research about anorexia questions whether we should look more closely within the brain physiologically to understand the cause of anorexia and the factors which lead to its persistence for some people. This theory suggests there is a dysfunction within the part of the brain involved with taste, emotion, appetite and pain which explains why someone with anorexia has such extreme and intransigent behaviour.

Can social media influence eating disorders?

There are often questions about the role of the media, both mainstream and social, as a factor in the development of eating disorders. At Schoen Clinic, we do see some young people who have used pro-anorexia websites which have served to sustain and normalise their eating disorder. Certainly, the idealised images which bombard young people every day do play a role in anxiety around body image, but it would be too simple to suggest that the media causes eating disorders. It may, in some cases, be a factor in creating a disposition to the eating disorder and or perpetuating it after onset.

Family therapy is a cornerstone of the work we do with young people and their families. It is never about pin-pointing blame on families, although very often parents come into the process with great fear that the eating disorder reflects their failure in some regard.

Although there may be some cases where, for example, a mother has food and body image anxieties which are transmitted to their daughter, we see many families where this is not the case in any way. Family therapy and supporting family work seek to understand the dynamics within each family and find ways of harnessing the support within each family in a positive way to overcome the eating disorder.

Some people go through the whole process of having an eating disorder, having treatment and on to recovery without ever fully understanding the original cause. For some, through psychoanalytic psychotherapy, it is very important to illuminate the cause and use this understanding to move forward to change. For others, often the younger children we treat, therapy is more focused on developing different strategies for dealing with difficult and painful emotions, so there is an alternative to disordered eating as a response.

Sometimes families leave Schoen Clinic with an understanding that the cause was a general inability to cope with the pressures that adolescence presented, and that recovery is based on utilising new strategies. One mother, who felt she would never fully understand the root cause of her daughter’s eating disorder, reflected during her daughter’s recovery: “Our daughter now has new and more positive ways of interpreting the world.”

Specialised eating disorder treatment is available

The cause of an eating disorder such as bulimia may be a little easier to understand than some examples of anorexia. Treatment is based on a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approach, encouraging the sufferer to understand what feelings trigger the thoughts and behaviour leading to binge eating. Through understanding this trigger point, the individual is better able to develop other ways of thinking and behaving at the stage when disordered eating occurs.

In conclusion, the causes of an eating disorder are likely to be complex, not always apparent and will involve an interaction of several factors. It is essential that parents do not blame themselves and that if symptoms of an eating disorder are a concern, medical help is quickly sought because the longer an eating disorder persists, the more difficult it will be to treat.

Please reach out to our caring team at Schoen Clinic if you need support for yourself or a loved one. Our specialists in London, Birmingham and York offer highly specialised treatments for children, teens and adults.

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