Why Eating Disorders Aren’t Just About Control

As a psychologist working with individuals who struggle in their relationship with food; it feels frustrating when I hear others (especially other mental health providers!) saying that eating disorders happen to people because they are “controlling”.  Yes, I do think that many people who have an eating disorder often feel that many things in their life are out of their control; therefore, they frequently do seek out things that they believe they can control.  However, if you have ever had an eating disorder, you may know that the one thing people usually end up feeling is out of control.  Many times people use food as something they can control, but very quickly the eating disorder starts controlling them.  Characteristics of people who are more likely to develop an eating disorder, are often those individuals who do seek perfection, like things a certain way, and may have anxiety.  Having “control” issues is not necessarily a mental health problem and can likely mean lots of different things.  Anxiety is something that frequently can look like a control issue.  People with high anxiety tend to want things the same way in order to help avoid the overwhelming fear they may experience in new/unknown situations.  Anxiety is very commonly associated with eating disorders.

So if eating disorders aren’t just about control, what are they about?  Eating disorders are very complex disorders that do not have any one reason for their development.  In fact, all we know about what causes an eating disorder are risk factors, or things that make the chances of an individual developing an eating disorder more likely.  If we were able to know exactly what caused these disorders, we would likely be able to better prevent and treat eating disorders. 

In my experience, eating disorders frequently develop as a way to cope with negative emotions.  No one chooses to have an eating disorder.  Someone may realize that when they sit and just start eating they don’t have to think about anything.  The foods they typically eat contain sugar, which chemically does change our brain and for most people, helps us to feel less depressed, have more energy, and feel “better”, after consumption.  However, this so called, sugar high, wears off and people begin to experience their negative emotions again.  For other people, they may not eat when they become overwhelmed with negative emotions.  This can occur because emotional distress causes physical and chemical changes in our body.  One of these changes occurs in our digestive system, making it more difficult for our food to digest.  For some people when they experience these symptoms they may avoid eating.  Once someone goes without eating for a period of time, further changes happen in their body and their brain.  Because our bodies require food/energy to survive our body will do what it can to try to get the energy it needs.  Initially it may come as hearing our stomach growl, headaches, and feeling nauseous.  During this time it can be more difficult to focus on other things because our brain is trying to get us to focus on getting food.  This also means that the negative feelings we were experiencing are no longer a focus.  Our bodies can do some amazing things to try to preserve its self.  After an extended period of time without food, many people experience a feeling of numbness and a lack of emotions because their bodies are too focused on self-preservation.  Therefore, restricting food intake can also inadvertently become a way to cope with overwhelmingly strong emotions. 

Eating disorders may develop as part of a way to avoid having to experience negative emotions.  The chemical processes in our brain are impacted by the food we eat and don’t eat.  This can strengthen the disordered eating as the pattern of restricting, binging, or purging continues.  Once these chemical changes have occurred and a behavior pattern has been established; the eating disorder is now likely in control of that individual.  Socially these individuals become more isolated as the eating disorder wants to keep their symptoms hidden so that others don’t try to take it away from them.  In addition, food is a big part of our culture and people tend to notice when an individual eats significantly different than others.  The disordered eating symptoms are almost completely done in secret because of the overwhelming amount of shame that most individuals feel when they engage in disordered eating. 

Eating disorders can play many functions in the life of those impacted.  It can help to manage intense negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, low self esteem, incompetency, and to protect against fears.  Many people who struggle with disordered eating may have experienced or witnessed traumatic events.  They may have had difficult relationships with caregivers or had caregivers who were inconsistent.  Many times these individuals had a difficult time learning how to self-soothe or calm themselves when they are upset.   

Eating disorders are about much more than control.  Most individuals who struggle with an eating disorder also have other mental health diagnoses, typically of some kind of a mood disorder or anxiety disorder.  Disordered eating can develop as a way to try to keep themselves safe by not experiencing negative emotions so intensely.  No one chooses to have an eating disorder.  People may struggle with feeling out of control in areas of their life, but this doesn’t mean that they necessarily have control issues.  Recognizing the complexity of these disorders and being more aware of the function that the eating disorder is serving for the individual; can help treatment be more effective.   

Trusted Therapy, Inc

Tonya McFarland, PsyD

1030 Johnson Rd, 280

Golden, CO  80401