Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental disorder that can turn deadly if not treated properly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 0.5% to 3.7% of women will suffer from this disorder. While anorexia is typically thought of a disease that only affects younger women, individuals of any age or gender can suffer with this condition. In this post, we are going to explore what causes anorexia nervosa. I’ll also discuss anorexia risk factors, the warning signs of anorexia, and supporting a loved one with anorexia.
What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?
I’m often asked, “what causes anorexia nervosa?” The exact causes are unknown, but experts agree that it is probably a combination of 3 factors: Biological, Psychological, and Environmental.
1. Biological Factors
While it’s not yet known exactly which genes are involved or associated with developing anorexia nervosa, some inherited personality traits are thought to be associated with a higher risk of developing anorexia. These factors include a tendency towards trying to be perfect (perfectionism), being sensitive, and high goal directed behavior – All traits found to be associated with anorexia.
In addition, there seems to be a genetic link to anorexia and individuals who have a family history of substance abuse, depression, OCD and eating disorders. In fact, studies published in NCBI suggest that a person whose close relative suffers from anorexia is 7 to 12 times more likely to develop anorexia than someone whose close relatives don’t suffer from anorexia. Other studies show that there is a 50 to 80% heritability factor that contributes to anorexia nervosa.
2. Psychological Factors
Psychological factors may play a part in causing anorexia nervosa. There are specific personality and behavioral traits that are thought to be connected in the development of anorexia nervosa. These traits include:
- Having excessive fear or doubt about one’s future
- Difficulty coping with stress or being highly sensitive to the effects of stress
- Having a history of depression or anxiety related disorders
- Difficulty expressing emotions, especially Alexithymia (the inability to put feelings into words)
- Having a tendency towards perfectionism
- Experiences that causes one to overvalue looks or being thin
- Obsessive compulsive tendencies
- A tendency to put the needs of others before your own
When a person has one or more of these psychological traits, they may find that the eating disorder helps them cope with these issues, that the eating disorder soothes or distracts them from these feelings.
3. Environmental Factors
Individuals who are raised or live in Western Cultures are exposed to a high level of pressure related to weight and appearance. Societal norms place a high importance on beauty and thinness. This concept is reinforced by media messaging, magazines, social media, and other online sources. Pressure mounts and places a high degree of stress, especially on young women.
Other environmental factors can include:
- Being overly stressed at work or school
- Having difficult family relations
- Being bullied about body weight, shape, or how you look
- Adverse life events that cause stress or trauma
- Being physically or sexually abused
Anorexia Risk Factors
While there is no single reason why someone develops anorexia nervosa, there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of one person having anorexia over another not having it.
While anorexia can strike anyone, below are some anorexia risk factors that increase the likelihood:
- Being LGBTQ+ between the ages of 13 and 24.
- Being a female between the ages of 12-25
- Having a family history of eating disorders or psychiatric disorders
- Having a higher childhood body mass index
- Increased social pressure to be thin
- Having low self-esteem
- A difficulty in expressing one’s feelings
- Lacking family or social support
- Having unrealistically high standards or perfectionism
- Dieting often, especially as a child or teen
- Being born prematurely, low weight, or being part of a multiple birth
- Having a history of sexual abuse
- Abnormal functioning of brain chemicals that control hunger and eating
According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), more than half of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer young people between the ages of 13 and 24 have been diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point, with a stunning 75% indicating that they were either diagnosed with an eating disorder or suspected that they have had one.
Can I Prevent Anorexia?
While preventing anorexia may not be entirely possible, here are some things you can do to help a loved one you suspect may be developing anorexia:
1. Help Ease the Pressure
Helping your loved one in a time of crisis can help ease the pressures that are pushing them to anorexia. You can tell them:
- How much you and others love them
- That no one is perfect and you don’t expect them to be perfect
- How many great traits they have (encouragement)
- That they can be honest about how they are feeling
- Praising them for who they are and not what they look like
- Expressing appreciation for things that they do well
- Avoid conversation that idealizes thinness or that speaks negatively about weight
2. Detect Anorexia Early
If you suspect that you or a loved one may be developing anorexia, it’s important to be informed about the warning signs and general side effects of anorexia. This can help prevent the anorexia from becoming a full medical crisis.
3. Get Educated
It’s important to get educated on anorexia and to learn what’s fact and fiction. Anorexia is not just about wanting to be thin. It is a complex, multi-layered issue that requires specialized care and intensive treatment.
4. Have a Discussion
Before your loved one has severe symptoms, discuss your worries with them. The sooner your loved one gets help, the better. While they may not see how severe the eating disorder is affecting them, they may be able to understand that their behaviors are creating intense fear in others and that may be enough to help them get into treatment.
5. Help Build a Support System
It’s important to show your loved ones that they can trust you and that you love them very much. In certain cases, taking this on as a family, such as through family-based treatment, is an extremely effective way to treat anorexia. Making yourself available to be a part of the solution and to help our loved one confront the eating disorder can be challenging but also quite rewarding.
6. Get Professional Help
Getting professional help for you or your loved one is not a shameful option. You don’t have to fight this on your own. Trained medical professionals know how to help, including helping you gain a healthy amount of weight back.
Getting Anorexia Nervosa Help
Thank you for reading my post on “What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?” If you or a loved one suffer from anorexia, it may seem like a hopeless journey full of pain and disappointments. But I’m here to help, I’ve dedicated my life to helping individuals overcome deadly eating disorders like anorexia – a full recovery from anorexia is within your grasp. There is hope!
I’m Dr. Amy Boyers, a Clinical Psychologist in Miami who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders (all types) and other serious, long-term mental health conditions, including addictions, bipolar disorder treatment, and OCD. I offer personalized and sophisticated eating disorder treatment services, individual and family psychotherapy, family member support and education, in-home meal support, coordination of a treatment service, and much more.