An essay by Caitlin Lloyd.
Emma was an anxious child, always worrying. At thirteen, her anxiety became centered on interactions at school – she was terrified of being judged negatively by classmates. Around this time Emma began dieting, intending to lose just a small amount of weight. It turned out she could do so relatively easily, and enjoyed the sense of achievement resulting from the numbers on the scale going down. Her diet continued, becoming more and more extreme. Emma’s weight plummeted.
Eight years later, having had two inpatient hospital admissions, Emma maintains a dangerously low body weight, achieved by setting strict rules around eating. A daily calorie limit is followed, and foods containing fat and sugar avoided. Eating takes place only at certain times, and each mouthful must be chewed ten times before swallowing. Any deviation from these rules, and the day is ruined.
Emma retook two years at school, falling behind her peers, but secured a place at Durham University to study mathematics. It is difficult to concentrate on her work though, because all Emma can think about is food: what she has eaten; and what she will eat. Her focus on food makes it hard to maintain friendships, and Emma has few. Emma spends university holidays with her family, the time dominated by arguments over food.
Sometimes Emma wishes things were different. But that means eating more, which feels impossible. Deviating from the rules makes Emma unbearably anxious. No amount of support can dispel the intense fear of becoming fat, or feelings of self-disgust that accompany weight-gain.
Emma is fictional but typical of someone with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by persistent starvation in the context of a low weight and fear of weight-gain. In the UK it is estimated that as many as one in 25 women will experience anorexia in the course of their lifetime. Men develop anorexia too; roughly one in ten people with anorexia is male.
Anorexia usually develops during adolescence, and has many adverse yet long-lasting physical and mental health consequences. Starvation compromises the function of almost all major organ systems, and feelings of despair increase the risk of suicide; anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental health disorder.
Full recovery from anorexia is a lengthy process, and unfortunately not common. Treatments exist but not one is consistently effective. Fewer than half of those diagnosed with anorexia make a full recovery, and relapse rates are high – around 30-40% of people fall back into the disorder’s grip following initial recovery. For some, weight-gain is sustained, but a strict diet and overconcern with eating and weight remains, severely impacting quality of life.
The difficulty treating anorexia makes effective prevention vital. For this we need to target the factors that cause anorexia, requiring knowledge of what those factors are. My research investigates whether anxiety disorders play a causal role in anorexia development, to help us understand whether it would be beneficial to address anxiety in young people to prevent eating disorders.
It has long been suggested that the starvation of anorexia reduces anxiety. This would make dieting helpful (in this narrow sense) to those experiencing anxiety symptoms, encouraging the dieting to continue. Anxiety disorders and anorexia often co-occur. But correlation is not causation, and determining cause-and-effect is notoriously challenging.
As an example, for anxiety to cause anorexia development, anxiety must precede anorexia. Existing findings support this, however studies have tended to ask people with anorexia to recall the time before their illness developed. Experiencing anorexia may affect memory recall; to try and explain how their anorexia developed, someone with anorexia might believe themselves to have been more anxious in childhood than they actually were. In this case the conclusion that anxiety causes anorexia may be invalid. Many sources of potential error exist in research, meaning that many findings could be inaccurate, at least to some degree.
Different research methods have different strengths and limitations, and are thus prone to different biases. This can be used to our advantage: if findings across studies of different research methods point to the same conclusion, we can be more confident the conclusion is correct. I am using a variety of research methods, each designed to minimise the potential for erroneous conclusions, to determine the role of anxiety in anorexia. If a causal role is supported across the different studies, trialing interventions designed to reduce anxiety for eating disorder prevention is encouraged. If not, the search for other factors to target for improved eating disorder prevention continues.
We are at an early stage in understanding anorexia, but we do know that many people with the illness become ill at a young age, with their whole lives ahead – like Emma. My research matters because it aims to stop people losing their lives, and quality of life, to anorexia.