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Anorexia Nervosa

What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?

Last modified: 
16/03/2012 - 14:58

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

There is no single cause of anorexia nervosa. Several different factors are usually involved in producing this disorder.

Cultural Pressures

In many societies, being extremely thin is the standard of beauty for women and represents success, happiness, and self-control. Women are bombarded with messages from the media that they must diet to meet this standard. However, this idealized ultra-thin body shape is almost impossible for most women to achieve since it does not fit with the biological and inherited factors that determine natural body weight. This conflict leaves most women very dissatisfied with their body weight and shape.

More recently, pressure has also increased on men to be lean and muscular. In addition, in certain occupations (such as dancing, modeling, and sports like gymnastics, figure skating, running, and wrestling), the pressure to maintain a specific weight and appearance is especially strong.

Psychological Issues

Psychological characteristics that can make a person more likely to develop anorexia nervosa include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness
  • Poor body image
  • Depression
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Rigid thinking patterns
  • Need for control
  • Perfectionism
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Avoidance of conflict with others
  • Need to feel special or unique

People with anorexia nervosa often appear emotionally driven not only toward weight loss, but also in other areas of their life, such as schoolwork, physical fitness, or career. It has also been suggested that in some cases of anorexia nervosa, self-starvation may be a way to avoid the sexual and social demands associated with adolescence.

One of the problems in determining which traits may cause anorexia nervosa is that the weight loss itself causes certain psychological disturbances to develop. These may include depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, obsessive thinking, feelings of inadequacy, social withdrawal, and personality changes. Thus, some of the traits that occur in anorexia nervosa may be a result, rather than a cause, of the disorder.

Family Environment

Some family styles may contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. Families of people with the disorder are more likely to be:

  • Overprotective
  • Rigid
  • Suffocating in their closeness

In these cases, anorexia nervosa develops as a struggle for independence and individuality. It is likely to surface in adolescence when new demands for independence occur.

Other characteristics of families that may increase the chance of developing anorexia nervosa are:

  • Overvaluing appearance and thinness
  • Criticizing a child's weight or shape
  • Being physically or sexually abusive

Genetic Factors

Anorexia nervosa occurs eight times more often in people who have relatives with the disorder. However, experts do not know exactly what the inherited factor may be. In addition, anorexia nervosa occurs more often in families with a history of depression or alcohol abuse.

Life Transitions

Life transitions can often trigger anorexia nervosa in someone who is already vulnerable because of the factors described above. Examples include:

  • Beginning of adolescence
  • Beginning or failing in school or at work
  • Breakup of a relationship
  • Death of a loved one

Dieting and losing weight can also set off anorexia nervosa.

Perpetuating Factors

Once anorexia nervosa has developed, several factors can perpetuate the disorder. These factors include:

  • Symptoms of starvation
  • Other people's reactions to the weight loss
  • Emotional needs filled by feelings of self-control, virtue, and power from controlling one's weight

The resulting cycle makes it more difficult to stop the disorder and become healthy again.

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Anorexia Nervosa

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.