For this article, Sunrise Residential Treatment Center asked eating Disorder specialist Isabelle Tierney to discuss what causes eating disorders.  What emotional needs do eating disorders attempt to meet (i.e. what function the disorder serves, however dangerously for the sufferer)? Understanding these functions, according to Isabelle, can be a first step toward providing treatment.

Understanding What Causes Eating Disorders

Anorexia and bulimia are generally driven by deep, unmet emotional needs. In this sense, an eating disorder does serve a function, albeit in a highly dangerous and self-destructive way. Uncovering the functions of an eating disorder for an individual is crucial to successful treatment planning.

  • As the person loses weight, dieting and weight loss take on a different function for the anorexic sufferer
  • She/he finds a new level of control in life; she previously did not feel effective or adequate despite efforts at perfection
  • She believes that being thin will solve all of her problems
  • She finds a new sense of power (does not have to give in to hunger) and superiority; she finally measures up
  • Her control over eating gives her a new sense of meaning, a purpose to life
  • She gains a new sense of challenge
  • She has a feeling of independence: the “good girl” saying no to authorities, often for first time in life
  • Anorexia gives her an identity, which is a fundamental developmental task
  • “While I’m eating, nothing else matters;) the bulimic can eat to satisfy emotional needs without worrying about the usual consequences
  • Food is an outlet for all the feelings and conflicts that cannot be exposed
  • The binge-purge cycle blocks or discharges feelings that are experienced as unacceptable
  • The bulimia is a way to cope with uncomfortable emotional states; it relieves stress, anxiety, low self-esteem
  • Unlike the anorexic, the bulimic DOES acknowledge there’s something wrong but feels hopeless about what to do about it

Only by first understanding the emotional needs that an eating disorder attempts to meet can we construct a treatment plan that effectively meets that need in a healthier manner. Understanding is the first step toward both compassion and treatment.
This is part three of a four- part primer on eating disorders provided by eating-disorders specialist Isabelle Tierney, M.A., LMFT, BHSP. Isabelle lives in Boulder Colorado and provides web-based and in-person training, seminars, in-services, and interventions throughout the US and abroad.