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Eating Disorders and Harm Avoidance

Written by Maegan Kenney
Published on September 21, 2017

Many people who suffer from eating disorders have what is called a “harm avoidant” personality characterized by shyness, a fear of uncertainty, self-doubt, worry, pessimism, and neuroticism. Think of a time when you needed to be assertive and stand up for yourself. Maybe it was a boss asking you to stay late for the 4th day in a row or a friend who was emotionally draining you by always telling you their problems, but never asking about yours. My guess is that these kinds of situations are difficult for you to manage if you have experienced an eating disorder. Having to deliver news to someone and risk the uncertainty of hurting his or her feelings may be unbearable for you. Alternatively, if you stay on this track you, will exhaust yourself in no time. I promise.

But before you get fatigued, check out the science linking eating disorders and harm avoidant personalities. Researchers have shown a correlation between high levels of serotonin and high levels of harm avoidant behaviors, which have been linked to the serotonin system in women recovered from anorexia nervosa. Harm avoidance is also present in those with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder but is combined with a higher level of impulsivity, unlike with anorexia nervosa. Bulimia is also associated with emotional dysregulation and anxiety. Both anorexia and bulimia eating disorder subtypes show correlations with women who are perfectionists. Women with anorexia and bulimia have also shown to share personality traits like inflexibility, determination, excessive doubt and cautiousness.

As you towards recovery, it’s essential to be aware of personality traits that may create, activate or sustain an eating disorder, especially when trying to gain insight into triggers. As it’s often stated in the substance use recovery world, your “disease is doing pushups in the parking lot.” A relapse may be in the horizon if you are not aware of spikes in eating disorder behaviors that are “not about the food,” or not related to food directly. Your antenna should go up if you are struggling with things like having difficulty saying “no”, feeling more fearful or being more rigid in your thoughts or behaviors. It’s necessary to build resiliency against triggers that may derail progress to add to your tool belt. Speaking with your therapist about your self-observations during these times is a great protective factor against a relapse.

If you or a loved one is suffering with symptoms of an eating disorder, you are not alone and there is help. O’Connor Professional Group provides private eating disorder support services for individuals and families. Contact us online or call 617.910.3940 for more information and to schedule a consultation with a member of our caring team.

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