Negativity, Social Awkwardness Common in Women With Eating Disorders

Scared looking women biting her fingernails

Recent evidence from a team of Swedish researchers indicates that women with eating disorders other than anorexia have personality traits that largely distinguish them from the general population.

Personality traits are the mixtures of long-term thought and behavioral tendencies that help differentiate human beings from each other. These traits develop in childhood and adolescence before reaching a more-or-less fixed form in adulthood. In a study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from three Swedish institutions compared the typical personality traits of women with eating disorders other than anorexia to the personality traits of generally healthy women. These researchers found a number of traits that distinguish women with non-anorexia-related eating disorders and partially account for their symptoms.

Non-Anorexic Eating Disorders

In addition to anorexia nervosa, there are two main eating disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA): bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. The APA includes these conditions in a larger category of conditions known as feeding and eating disorders, which also includes rumination disorder, pica, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, “other” specified feeding or eating disorder and unspecified feeding or eating disorder. Each of these conditions has its unique symptoms and set of diagnostic criteria.

Binge-eating disorder was first officially recognized as an illness in May 2013. However, the condition actually occurs more often than either anorexia or bulimia. Like people with bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder consume excessively large amounts of food during discrete episodes or binges. Unlike people with bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder don’t take steps to rapidly eliminate food calories from their bodies after they take part in binging episodes. Since such episodes occur fairly frequently, individuals with the disorder commonly carry enough extra weight to qualify as overweight, obese or morbidly obese. However, some people with binge-eating disorder have an average or normal body weight for their height, age and gender. As a rule, a person with the disorder does not experience the potentially fatal changes in normal organ function that can appear in a person with bulimia who vomits to eliminate calories after binging.

Personality Traits

Each adult has a mixture of personality traits that fall into five primary categories, known as openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion and neuroticism. Specific traits in the openness category include curiosity, originality and an ability to think in imaginative terms. Traits in the agreeableness category include generosity, an appreciation for others and sympathy for others. Traits in the conscientiousness category include thoroughness and reliability, while traits in the extraversion category include talkativeness and enthusiasm. The neuroticism category includes typically negative or detrimental personality traits such as emotional instability, anxiousness and adverse sensitivity to the opinions or judgments of others. Psychologists, psychiatrists and researchers can use several screening tools to identify any given person’s particular blend of the five primary personality traits, including the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised, or NEO PI-R.

Traits of Women With Eating Disorders

In the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, Lund University and Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders used a sampling of 208 women with an eating disorder other than anorexia to help determine if women with non-anorexic eating disorders have personality traits that differentiate them from generally healthy women. The project also included a comparison group of 94 women unaffected by any kind of eating disorder. All of the women in both groups took the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised. In addition, the researchers assessed the specific symptoms of the women in the group affected by an eating disorder.

The researchers concluded that women with an eating disorder other than anorexia commonly have a number of personality traits that differentiate them from their same-gender counterparts not dealing with an eating disorder. These traits include a negative emotional outlook, a susceptibility to negative emotional influences, a lack of positive emotional states that typically contribute to a sense of mental well-being, a reduced tendency to respond well to social situations, a reduced level of trust in others and a relative inability to act in consistent or reliable ways.

The researchers also wanted to know how much differences in personality impact women with a non-anorexia-related eating disorder. After reviewing their findings, they concluded that personality variations are responsible for roughly one-quarter of the difference in symptom severity observed in women dealing with bulimia or binge-eating disorder.

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