So many disorders hinge upon a person’s maladaptive strategies for handling unpleasant emotions. Now a recent college undergraduate experiment points to emotional stress as a driver behind the development of eating disorders. A significant body of research currently exists to show how eating disorders are linked to perfectionistic attitudes toward weight and body size. But the drive for physical perfection may be only part of the disease. The Bucknell University experiment was crafted to investigate how emotions may also motivate the illness.
The Language-based Experiment
The experiment was the brain child of Bucknell undergrad Laura Feldman. Feldman is a psychology major who is also pursuing a minor in linguistics. Together with an assistant linguistics professor, Feldman used her interest in language to design a language-based experiment which would expose how each subject’s emotional state determined his/her responsiveness to food. The experiment was based upon the hypothesis that stressed subjects with eating disorders would respond differently to words one might associate with disordered eating than subjects who were not experiencing stress.
Word Recognition as a Measuring Stick For Stress
The subjects were exposed to words like ‘starve’, ‘pizza’, and ‘restaurant’ while their ability to register and associate those words was timed. Subjects who had eating disorders and were under stress showed a slower reaction time when compared to non-stressed study participants. Feldman says that this suggests that people with eating disorders who feel stressed, manage that stress by blocking out thoughts of food. It seems clear that attempting to manage stress by managing food-related thoughts could be a motivating factor in developing an eating disorder. Food As a Way to Resist Stress
When a person subverts thoughts about food in an effort to cope with stress, it is not a far jump to suggest that they may avoid eating for the same reason. Severely restricting calories and intense dieting may be the person’s means of dealing with stress. If so, then Feldman’s experiment demonstrates how eating disorders are performing emotional roles for sufferers rather than acting a means to achieve only physical goals. If proven to be the case, the experiment could impact how eating disorder treatments are implemented.
The Potential Impact of Treatment on Eating Disorders
If eating disorders are a means of coping with emotional stress, then treatments which emphasize new, healthier coping mechanisms should be effective. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy which center on changing thoughts and beliefs in order to benefit behavior could be more effective than past strategies. The experiment and its results are slated to be presented at an undergraduate research convention at Bucknell University next Spring.