Most patients with anorexia nervosa (AN) experience an ostensible “loss of appetite,” if you will, for all human needs. During refeeding, some patients with AN become uncharacteristically violent and hostile towards their parents, shunning all attempts at comfort or affection. Some therapists have referred to this phenomenon as “emotional anorexia.” While I’m not aware of any empirical literature on this topic, I do have some hypotheses of my own.
Like AN and other mental illnesses, the etiology of emotional anorexia is complex and multifaceted. I believe that the factors which contribute to emotional anorexia are, in order of relevance: 1.) Genetic predisposition, 2.) Neurobiological changes associated with malnutrition and refeeding, 3.) Psychological symptoms of AN, and 4.) Developmental and familial issues. Let’s examine each of these issues in turn.
GENETIC PREDISPOSITION. Between 50%-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic. It is very likely, then, that genes play the most significant role in the development of emotional anorexia as well. The character traits which predispose people to AN: anxiety, obsessiveness, perfectionism, and harm avoidance, are present at birth and are determined primarily by genetics. People with this character structure tend to exercise restraint not just with their food, but also in other areas of their lives. They tend to be emotionally inhibited, most likely because they tend to be overly fearful of making mistakes.
Further, recent research has demonstrated that individuals with AN have difficulty processing emotional information. They tend to misperceive others’ emotions (for example, they are likely to think someone is angry with them when in reality the person is concerned about them), and they avoid emotionally intense situations. This type of personality creates the perfect template for the development of emotional anorexia.
Brain imaging studies have shown that individuals with AN have alterations in their anterior insula, a region of the brain which is critically important for interoception (the self-awareness of internal bodily signals). During the acute phase of their illness, individuals with AN are literally unable to sense hunger, fullness, tiredness, and changes in body temperature. Additionally, they have an imbalance between circuits in the brain that regulate reward and emotion (the ventral or limbic circuit) and circuits that are associated with consequences and planning ahead (the dorsal or cognitive circuit).
This combination of difficulty processing emotional information, disrupted interoceptive awareness, and disregulated reward-emotion circuitry renders anorexics incapable of experiencing pleasure from food, rest, sex, physical affection, or fun activities the way healthy people do. A hug may feel the same as a slap in the face; a smile may look like a sneer; a piece of chocolate cake may be as punishing as a tablespoon of cod liver oil; words of encouragement may sting like salt in a wound. People with AN feel safer and calmer when they shrug off affection and shun human contact as well as food.
NEUROBIOLOGICAL CHANGES ASSOCIATED WITH MALNUTRITION AND REFEEDING. Since the Minnesota Starvation Study, we have known that malnutrition causes biochemical changes in the brain which result in dramatic personality and behavior changes, such as depression, anxiety, irritability, apathy, loss of interest, isolation, and social withdrawal. The neurobiological changes associated with re-feeding are equally profound. Because starvation numbs emotions, many patients experience a resurgence of depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, and loss of control when food is reintroduced. Dr. Walter Kaye hypothesizes that individuals with AN have a shortage of serotonin in the brain, since serotonin is derived partially from food. More serotonin receptors are created in effort to harvest the scanty amount of serotonin available. Thus, when food is reintroduced and serotonin levels rise, the large number of receptors causes too much serotonin to be taken up, making the person feel extremely agitated and irritable. This makes eating a terrible emotional ordeal. It is very difficult to give or receive love and affection when you are struggling with intolerable anxiety and irritability.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS OF ANOREXIA NERVOSA. So now we have a teenager with the perfect genetic template for emotional anorexia who is experiencing the profound neurobiological effects of malnutrition. In addition to these physiological effects, she is experiencing debilitating depression, feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, she has lost interest in socializing, she has withdrawn from friends and family, and she has difficulty accurately perceiving emotions. When she isolates herself, she experiences less social reinforcement, which confirms the depressive schema that she is worthless and inadequate. Her athletic performance begins to decline, she has difficulty concentrating, and she is no longer asked out on dates. Her friends are alarmed by the changes in her physical appearance and mood, so they stop talking to her. Parents, teachers, coaches, and friends express extreme concern, which she misinterprets as anger, jealousy, or criticism. All of these things reinforce her feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. I have had several patients with AN cry to me that their parents didn’t visit them at all while they were away at summer camp or college. Meanwhile, their parents confided to me that they wanted desperately to visit their daughter, but she told them not to, and they wanted to respect her autonomy. The patients insisted that they didn’t want their parents, yet lamented their absence. Clearly, there’s a disconnect here. The patient either a.) is not aware of her emotional needs, b.) doesn’t know how to express these needs, or c.) chooses not to express her needs because she is afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed. I believe that a, b, and c are all true.
One of the core features of AN which has persisted throughout the centuries is a sense of “needlessness,” of being “above” worldly pleasures and bodily needs. Medieval saints experienced this needlessness. They prayed for days on end without food, water, sleep, or socialization. Amongst these fasting saints, there are documented cases of what would today be diagnosed as AN. In certain non-western cultures such as China and Ghana, AN is as prevalent as it is in the US. The major difference is that patients in non-western cultures relate their starvation to profound self-control, moral superiority, and spiritual wholeness rather than to a desire to be skinny. Today’s American anorexics, like their medieval predecessors and non-western counterparts, experience some version of needlessness. Some anorexics have a grandiose sense of being “above” basic needs, including food, sleep, fun, love, and comfort. This grandiosity often stems from the extra burst of energy and euphoria that starvation brings them, coupled with the sense of pride and accomplishment that they have been able to override their body’s needs and diet to the point of emaciation. Other anorexics believe they are unworthy of food, sleep, fun, love, or comfort. These feelings stem from the debilitating depression that is triggered by malnourishment and exacerbated by body dysmorphia and self-loathing. Many anorexics vacillate between these two mind frames, but the end result is the same: emotional anorexia.
The neurobiological changes associated with refeeding cause most patients to experience intense mood swings, irritability, and anger. The psychological trauma of AN adds fuel to the fire. Eating more and gaining weight are an anorexic’s worst nightmares, and this is precisely what is required of her in order to recover. She gains weight, experiences tremendous fear as her appetite kicks into high gear once again, and she is no longer “allowed” to diet. Her body dysmorphia and self-loathing are more intense than ever. Her irritability, agitation, moodiness, and depression are at an all-time high. She withdraws and isolates herself even more, feeling as though she is “too fat” to be seen in public and undeserving of love, comfort, friends, or fun.
Enter the old-school therapist. The young patient is absolutely miserable and desperate to feel better. She has little insight into her symptoms and trusts the therapist completely. The therapist searches through the patient’s past to uncover the “root cause” of her AN. Lo and behold, it is discovered that her parents were too controlling, too overbearing, too overprotective, too critical, too mean, too distant, too neglectful, or too abusive (often some combination of the above). The patient, who is in the midst of the neurobiological hurricane that is re-feeding, becomes angry and hostile towards her parents once she “realizes” that they have caused her current misery. Her parents take her to appointments, prepare her food, and insist that she eats it, thus making her even more fat and unlovable. Her parents try to comfort her; she pushes them away. She is, at times, violently angry with them. After all, they made her anorexic, and now they are making her fat. The same pattern also develops with certain members of her treatment team. She views their interpretations as criticisms. She perceives their requirement of weight restoration as their attempts to fatten her up. Her parents and her treatment team are ruining her life as they chip away at the one thing that has ever made her feel good: the AN.
DEVELOPMENTAL ISSUES. The concept of mother is inextricably intertwined with the concept of food. As developing fetuses in our mother’s womb, we receive nourishment from her. We are born with a rooting reflex, which prompts us to suck our mother’s breast or a bottle. Without this reflex, and without a mother or other caregiver to provide the nourishment, we would die. As infants, we cry when we are hungry. Mother comes running; she holds us and feeds us. Throughout our childhood and adolescence, mother is probably responsible for most of the food shopping and meal preparation.
When a teenager develops AN, her mother is often the first to notice a problem. Mother may encourage or require her to begin treatment. Mother often prepares and serves her food during re-feeding. Mother may ask when and what she last ate, and may require that she eat just a little bit more. Is it any wonder, then, that an anorexic’s feelings about food spill over into her feelings about her mother?
Some psychoanalysts postulate that AN develops from a lack of empathic attunement between mother and child. The mother is not attuned to her child’s emotional needs, so the child is unable to meet her own needs, and this is manifested in her inability to feed herself. There are no empirical data to support the theory that lack of maternal empathic attunement causes AN, and in fact, I believe that this theory is 100% false in terms of explaining the etiology of AN. However, I can understand how this principal may operate subconsciously in the mind of an ill patient. Individuals with AN have great difficulty getting their needs met. They may be unaware of their own needs, they may feel as though they don’t deserve to have their needs met, or they may believe they are “above” having needs. This applies to emotional needs as well as nutritional ones.
I suspect that there is a modest correlation (which does NOT imply causation) between a mother’s inability to provide for her child’s physical or emotional needs and the child’s development of AN. Remember, 50-80% of the risk for developing AN is genetic, so it is very likely that a patient with AN has a first-degree relative (often the mother) who also has a history of AN. If the mother is currently struggling with AN, her fear of food and intolerable anxiety may render her unable to provide for her child’s basic physical and emotional needs. Even if the mother is currently healthy but has a personal history of AN, she will likely share the biochemical and temperamental traits of her ill daughter, albeit to a lesser degree. The recovered AN mother’s deficit in interoceptive awareness may spill over onto her child. She may struggle to meet her daughter’s needs because she has difficulty sensing and meeting her own needs.
Teenagers who develop AN tend to be “model children.” They are almost universally intelligent, well-behaved, hard-working, and gifted at athletics or artistic endeavors. They follow all the rules to the letter. They have never caused a problem for their parents or teachers. The development of AN and the process of recovery leads to an examination of one’s life. The experience of having a life-threatening, soul-killing, personality-destroying illness is enough to make any teenager step back and take stock. Teenagers who are recovering from AN may begin to feel resentful that they have lived a “faked existence” and “played by everyone else’s rules.” They may realize that they have missed out on a lot of fun and excitement by being so straight-laced. With their therapist’s encouragement to express their emotions authentically, they unleash their fury onto the people who have been there through it all: their parents.
This is not a cohesive or well-articulated theory, just a compilation of related thoughts. I hope that research will shed some light onto this phenomenon in the near future.