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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Chivers

If you binge and purge, do you know the reason why you do it?

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

There are a lot of different opinions on what causes binging and purging. It can be different for everyone and you can never really say that there is one exact cause of everything because it can be wrapped up into a multitude of different things, different issues, different thoughts, beliefs and experiences. Some believe it' just a habit, but I don't agree that it's just a habit because we all have habits and they're not all as destructive as binging and purging.

Researchers say that there are a number of factors that play a role in the development of different eating disorders. These could be genetics, biology, emotional health, and societal expectations.

Biological factors:

  • Family history of having an eating disorder - that's definitely true because it might become a learned behaviour.

  • Family history of mental illness or substance abuse.

  • Predisposition to impulsive behaviours.

  • Neural sensitivity to rewards, particularly getting rewards from food.

Psychological factors:

  • Prior mental health diagnosis.

  • History of abuse or trauma

  • Negative body image or self image.

  • Difficulties in emotional regulation and capabilities of dealing with distress.

  • Poor self esteem.

  • Involvement in a career or a hobby where there's a big focus on physical appearance.

Dieting factors:

  • People who are dissatisfied with their body weight, shape or size.

  • People who have a negative view in relation to their appearance.

  • People who have a history of dieting, or they grew up in a family that dieted frequently.

  • People who have excessive ideals about what beauty is, and their core beliefs are linked to beauty and appearance.

So the two main views that I hold are that eating disorders are caused by nervous system dysregulation and cognitive distortions that come from core beliefs which form negative thoughts and patterns of behaviour.

Nervous system dysregulation can come from a number of different things, but in general, when we experience distressing events, our nervous system goes into a fight or flight reaction. And when we go into fight or flight our bodies focus only on the problem at hand, so functions such as processing and storing memory, for example, get shut off because the brain's just thinking I need to escape from this tiger, for example. So we experience this event and we don't log that event into our memory as we would usually, so our body thinks that the distressing event is still happening, and so a part of our nervous system is still stuck in this fight or flight mode. Whereas when people have a regulated nervous system, they experience a distressing event, go into fight or flight, and then self-regulate back to calm.

When you experience more events throughout life this pressure builds up in your system and then you "burst" like a bubble when the pressure gets too much. That's when you experience things like depression or anxiety, and bulimia or binge eating. And it might not feel like you've got pressure built up, I certainly never felt like I had pressure built up, although I remember now that there were times when I used to feel so much pressure that I would bang my head against a brick wall and even though I was hurting myself, I would just keep doing it and doing it. And for me personally, I didn't think I experienced any traumatic events. I had a really good childhood, but there are certain things that might affect you in certain ways when you're younger, and as an adult, you might disregard what happened. But as a child, you don't have that same logical view that you have as an adult - that's just something really important to know.

Now, the second thing is the cognitive behavioural aspect, which is where we form beliefs throughout our life, especially up until the age of seven, which is when our brains are like sponges, they take everything in from the world around us and we form these beliefs. Some negative core beliefs might be things like:

  • I'm not good enough.

  • I don't matter.

  • I deserve to suffer.

  • I'm not loveable.

We form these core beliefs when we're growing up, and these beliefs are stored in our subconscious, we then form these patterns of thoughts and subsequent patterns of behaviour because of these beliefs that are running in the background. We don't even realize that we are running these patterns, and we form these cognitive distortions. So a cognitive distortion is a way that our mind will convince us of something, when in reality it's completely untrue. So that voice in your head is telling you one thing, but the reality of the situation is that it's not true at all. Then you have these inaccurate thoughts that your mind's telling you, which is then reinforcing your negative thought patterns, which then triggers the negative behaviours like the binging and the purging.

A cognitive distortion is a way that our mind will convince us of something, when in reality it's completely untrue.

There are lots of different cognitive distortions, but some of the ones that contribute to eating disorder behaviours are things like:

  • Labeling - over-generalization and attaching a negative label to yourself, like I'm a failure or I'm fat or I'm ugly.

  • All or nothing or black and white thinking - looking at things in extremes, e.g. I can only eat nothing or eat everything. There's no moderation or middle ground.

  • Filtering - focusing on only the negative aspects of things and ignoring all the positives. So then you're thinking all these negative things, and then you end up engaging in binging and purging because of all the negative thoughts that are coming at you, without letting in anything positive.

A dysregulated nervous system and the beliefs that form our cognitive distortions are all house in the subconscious mind. Our subconscious controls 90-95% of our thoughts, actions and behaviours, and our conscious mind is only active about 5-10% of the time. That's why it's really difficult to instil change if you're only working to change things cognitively from your conscious mind. So the work that I do is working predominantly in the subconscious mind because that's where the change needs to happen for the change to be effective. It's really, really important to deal with the problem where the problem is stored, which is in the subconscious.

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