Anorexia and positive emotions: how pride and accomplishment get in the way of health
The role of positive emotions often takes a backseat to how negative emotions impact and exacerbate anorexia, say researchers from Rutgers University.
But good feelings, like those that come from the pride of losing weight or the satisfaction of maintaining control over one's diet, may also play an important role in fueling eating disorders.
"What we think happens is that positive emotions become exaggerated and are rewarding these maladaptive behaviors,” said study author Edward Selby. “Since only about one-third of women recover after treatment, what we need to do is gain a better understanding of why these positive emotions become so strongly associated with weight loss rather than with a healthy association such as family, school or relationships.”
A vicious cycle
Selby's study included 118 women between the ages of 18 and 58 who were being treated for anorexia nervosa. He found that women who had the most difficulty recognizing when positive emotions became exaggerated were the most likely to engage in eating disorder behaviors, like restricting calories, excessively exercising, or vomiting.
Selby said these women can get caught up in a vicious cycle where they continue weight loss efforts even when they have met their goals. This trend is reinforced by pro-anorexic websites that support extreme dieting and unhealthy body image ideals.
More research is needed, Selby said, to understand how women can create positive emotional responses through healthier activities.
“Being in control is important for many of these women,” Selby said. “What we need to do is find a way to reconnect the positive emotions they feel in losing weight to other aspects of their lives that will lead to a more balanced sense of happiness.”
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