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Emotion avoidance in anorexia nervosa

Posted Aug 12 2009 10:05pm
A sudden spate of new research on emotions in anorexia nervosa has definitely caught my interest, as emotions are not something that come easy for me. It's not just a feel your feelings sort of thing, but also a "I know I'm pissed and anxious, so now what" kind of thing. I feel emotions and I feel them hard and deep. I can usually identify them, but regulating them and living with them isn't one of my strong points.

A new study, titled " Emotion avoidance in patients with anorexia nervosa," found a strong relationship between levels of emotional avoidance, anxiety, and ED psychopathology in people with AN.

"Patients with AN endorsed levels of emotion avoidance that were comparable to or higher than other psychiatric populations and exceeded community controls...[These] findings confirm that emotion avoidance is present in patients with AN and provide initial support for the idea that anorexic symptoms function, in part, to help individuals avoid aversive emotional states."

Which makes a lot of sense. Anxiety is quite possibly one of the biggest triggers I have, and not eating makes me feel less anxious. And the strong relationship between anxiety and eating disorders hasn't gone unnoticed. Walt Kaye's group out at UCSD found this to be true experimentally.

Another study, titled " Emotional processing in women with anorexia nervosa and in healthy volunteers," found that

"Compared to the [healthy volunteers], patients with AN had lower levels of self reported emotional awareness and expression. They also responded more slowly to, correctly identified fewer emotions and misclassified more emotions in a facial recognition task, and responded more slowly to, and recalled fewer, self-referent emotion words."

Previous research has suggested that adolescents with anorexia had impaired emotional processing compared to non-anorexic adolescents.

A study from earlier this year, " Emotional perception in eating disorders," found that

"Patients with AN-R showed increased fear when confronted with stimuli containing anger, whereas patients with BN showed a tendency towards decreased fear...The finding of increased fear when exposed to the emotion of anger might be attributed to introversion and conflict avoidance of anorectic patients."

Which I have again found to be true in my personal experiences. Anger, whether mine or anyone e lse's, tends to terrify me. I typically avoid conflict, but my mom has also described me as "scrappy" at times, so it's not a 100% thing. I'll charge in if no other alternative is open, or if I'm feeling quite peeved, but usually, I just stay in the background. Some of this hanging back is conflict avoidance, and some of it is my innate introversion.

Other, more qualitative, studies have also looked at emotion perception in anorexia nervosa and the use of emotion-focused therapy to treat AN. I don't find either of these two studies as promising as the first three, largely because the results don't seem to be as concrete or reproducible.

Regardless, issues with emotion processing and recognition are neither purely genetic or purely environmental but arise from an interaction between the two.
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