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What causes an eating disorder?

There is no single cause that can explain why a person develops an eating disorder. It is usually a combination of factors (biological, psychological, familial and socio-cultural) that come together to create conditions in which an eating disorder is more likely to develop. The disorder often develops gradually as a response to an upset in a person’s life.

This could be a traumatic event, a loss or major change in a person’s life, bullying, an overload of stress, and/or critical comments about weight or shape. Sometimes, it is not obvious what the trigger may have been. A person with low self-worth or without a strong sense of identity may be more vulnerable. People who develop eating disorders tend to be overly concerned with meeting the standards and expectations of others, and are super-sensitive to other peoples’ feelings.

This explains why eating disorders occur so often during adolescence when identity is an issue, the opinion of peers is so important, and parental expectations are resisted. Eating disorders do not start out as a conscious choice and are not a wilful form of ‘attention seeking’. Understanding the emotional background of the eating disorder is crucial to developing an appropriate response and treatment approach.

Understanding An Eating Disorder As A Coping Tool

Understanding that an eating disorder is a person’s coping mechanism helps those around the person to realise how frightening and difficult it is for the person to let it go as they recover. It is therefore important that family and friends have realistic expectations of the pace of progress recovery takes. For the person with an eating disorder, controlling food and the body is their way of relieving distress and achieving some degree of control over their life.

Their world feels like an unsafe place, and, for many complex reasons, an eating disorder provides them with a sense of safety. Once trapped within the eating disorder, people often feel they need to maintain it in order to survive. They don’t know who they are or how they could cope without it.

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