Disordered Thinking and Disordered Eating

Which comes first – disordered thinking, or disordered eating?

Eating disorders can develop when an individual struggles with issues relating to eating habits, food intake, weight management, and attitudes towards their own weight and body image.

eating disorders causes and treatments

It is unfortunately very common to feel uncomfortable with your body. However, it is only when these problems and insecurities become extreme, or interfere with quality of life, that it reaches a point where it becomes a psychological disorder.

Although eating disorders predominantly affect females, one in ten individuals with an eating disorder are male.

Disordered eating can give rise to numerous negative consequences including:

  • Low self-esteem, depression, shame and guilt;
  • Obsession and anxiety;
  • Interference with normal daily activities;
  • Alienation from self, and often social withdrawal;
  • Physiological consequences, which can be potentially life-threatening.

What is Anorexia?

The key clinical feature of anorexia nervosa is the individual’s obsession with achieving and maintaining an extreme and dangerously low body weight.

Most of these individuals achieve their goals by restricting and avoiding foods; excessive exercise is also common.

The psychological characteristics of anorexia include an irrational fear of body fat and weight, as well as body dysmorphia (misperceptions of their body weight and shape). For example, the sufferer may perceive themselves as ‘fat’, when in fact they may be emaciated and severely underweight.

What is Bulimia?

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by the re-occurrence of periods of binge-eating, followed by behaviours designed to compensate for the binge period.

During a binge, an individual may consume large amounts of food rapidly. The binge eating may invoke feelings of anger and disgust, and negative feelings around discomfort and anxiety about gaining weight. Therefore, compensatory behaviours such as extreme dieting, purging through self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse, or excessive exercise, may follow.

Individuals with both anorexia and bulimia often have a distorted body image, intense fear of gaining weight, and excessive preoccupation with cooking, food, and behaviours related to their body shape. Both groups of disorders often have a strong belief that possessing a slim body shape is crucial for their own self-acceptance.

Does Disordered Thinking Cause Eating Disorders?

There is much debate around what may cause an individual to develop an eating disorder.

However one thing that experts do tend to agree on, is that eating disorders can usually be attributed to a combination of factors, rather than one single cause. These factors may include:

  • Cultural: From a young age, we are constantly exposed to the idea that the “perfect” body leads to the “perfect” life – through magazines, television advertising, social media, movies etc. Research has shown that dieting is seen as the way to achieve this “thin” ideal, and dieting predisposes an individual towards eating disorders.
  • Personality: Traits such as perfectionism and being highly self-critical, can also be risk factors in the development of eating disorders, as well as poor self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
  • Relationships: Difficulties with personal relationships – eg problems in the family, a breakup, and loneliness, can be contributing factors.

Even genetics can play a role.

Eating disorders often develop as a way for the individual to gain some control in one aspect of their lives, when they feel powerless in others.

However, it is only a temporary and false sense of control, as the behaviours begin to take over – leading to a downward spiral. The individual’s cognitive ability, physical health and self-esteem all suffer as a result.

A person with an eating disorder will rarely admit to having a problem, and usually will avoid seeking treatment. In the case of anorexia, body dysmorphia can cause such a skewed self-perception that the individual may not even realise how thin they have become; while those suffering from bulimia, are prevented by their feelings of intense shame and guilt.

As disordered eating becomes more entrenched over time, early diagnosis and treatment is critical. As the Australian Psychological Society website explains, “The longer abnormal eating behaviours persist, the more difficult it is to overcome the disorder and its effects on the body”.

Treating Disordered Thinking and Disordered Eating

Eating disorders are very complex, and often require input from a number of different health professionals, including  a psychologist.

Because eating disorders often stem from a variety of cultural factors, relationship issues, and personality traits, a psychologist can help the individual to identify and challenge any negative feelings and beliefs about themselves, as well as their attitude to weight and body image, rather than just treating the symptoms.

Psychological treatment for eating disorders may include family therapy (especially for children and adolescents); cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT); and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Shokria Siddiqui Psychologist BrisbaneAuthor: Shokria Siddiqui, BSc.Psych, PGDipPsych, PGDipMH, MPsych, MAPS.

Shokria Siddiqui is a Brisbane Psychologist working with all ages, however she has a particular interest in children and adolescents. By implementing evidence-based therapies that have been scientifically tested, building rapport with her clients, and creating a safe therapeutic space, Shokria helps her clients and their families to better meet life’s challenges.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Shokria Siddiqui, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or or Online Booking – Loganholme, or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.