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Eating Disorder Maintaining Factors

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

There are many factors that can trigger an eating disorder. There are also additional factors that often help to maintain the behavior after it begins. Once a disorder develops, the resulting changes can cause additional factors that maintain a crippling pattern. However, the issues that start a disorder are not always the same things that keep it going.

Eating Disorder Mindsets

Dysfunctional thinking and negative thoughts can keep eating disorders going. While these thinking patterns may seem unreasonable and not logical to healthy individuals, those with eating disorders fully believe the thoughts that they are having.


Some professionals have suggested that people with eating disorders have difficulty coping with and managing strong emotions, such as anger. The anger they experience can be a result of bitterness toward their family, the world and themselves. These feelings are often turned inward, instead of being expressed in healthy, manageable ways. This inward anger often creates self-hatred. Those with anorexia punish themselves for what they see as failures and for their self-hatred by restricting their food intake. They correct for the ever-increasing pile of mistakes they think they have made by punishing themselves through not feeding their own bodies. For those with bulimia, however, their strategy for correction is through purging. Their attempt to make up for binging and the resulting sense of shame is displayed through vomiting, exercising, and laxatives as an abusive response to the body. Self-hatred and punishment are generally uncontrolled, difficult to escape, and lead to depression, anxiety, and keeping secrets. All of these feelings keep eating disordered behaviors continuing.

Sometimes, self-punishment is related to dangerous, destructive behaviors. These include self-mutilation, suicide attempts, or self-harm. These behaviors can happen in people who are depressed or anxious, don't have good coping skills, or need attention and nurturing from others. Those who are really lonely, feel empty, or feel deprived often engage in self-destructive behaviors. These factors are common for people suffering from an eating disorder, which puts them at greater risk for doing these acts which injury themselves. In addition to starving themselves or purging, people with eating disorders may purposely try to harm themselves by:

  • cutting or burning themselves
  • picking at wounds
  • pulling their hair
  • banging their head
  • trying to break their bones,
  • or doing high-risk "extreme" behaviors.

Binge Eating as Comfort

Food can be both an enemy and a temptation in life. Unlike anorexia, binge-eating disorder does not focus on restricting food for not being perfect, and instead uses food as a source of comfort during times of stress or when upset. Binge eating is felt as highly pleasurable and comforting, which is very different from eating when having anorexia or bulimia. Foods eaten during binges are generally high in fat, starch, and calories, low on nutrition and taste very good. Binge eating is less about punishing the self and more about a dysfunctional means of coping. The person escapes stress or negative feelings through pleasurable eating.

Many individuals with eating disorders search for an escape from their misery and are desperate to find peace. Before, during, and after binging, those with bulimia or binge-eating disorder may become emotionally numb and withdrawn. They may also feel a disconnection from full awareness of self, time, external circumstances, and sometimes memory (known as dissociation). For those who binge, dissociation may feel like a trance or how someone feels during a drug high.

The comfort felt from a binge generally doesn't last long. After a binge, most people with an eating disorder feel guilty for having lost control and for the many calories they have eaten. Due to this shame, those with anorexia or bulimia who binge will move on to purge behaviors. These behaviors meet the need for self-punishment and correction. There are a large group of those who binge eat that do not self-punish by purging. They often feel depressed and promise themselves that they'll do better next time.

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