There are a number of different factors that could contribute to the development of an eating disorder, from unattainable body images portrayed by the media to peer pressure at school. Now, a new study has suggested that some young women may fall prey to these illnesses, such as bulimia or anorexia, as an impulsive reaction to stress.
That is according to a study by Sarah Fischer, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, US, who looked specifically at the type of stress known as negative urgency (NU) in female university students. NU is a form of impulsivity that can be defined as a tendency to act rashly when under emotional distress (positive urgency, in contrast, is having the type of disposition that leads to a rash response to an extremely positive affect). NU is often linked with illnesses such as alcohol addiction, binge eating, risky sexual behaviour and drug use.
In Ms Fischer's study, she wanted to examine the effect that NU had on women's eating habits in university, and chose a sample of 355 students who she analysed before and after their first semester. The first semester at university can be a stressful period for many new students. Not only is there the pressure of academia, there are also issues of fitting in, looking a certain way, socialising with new groups and, for many, living away from home for the first time. Different people choose different ways to cope with the stress, and for some this includes negative diversions such as alcohol, substance abuse and, as the study shows, eating disorders.
The researcher found that those who displayed signs of NU before they began studying were more likely to engage in binge eating by the time they had finished the designated period. In addition, the participants who showed high levels of NU and high expectations of thinness at the start of the analysis engaged in more frequent purging behaviour than those with moderate expectations or low amounts of NU.
“In sum, baseline NU and eating expectancies were directly associated with future binge eating, and NU moderated the effects of thinness/restricting expectancies on increases in levels of purging," she concluded. Ms Fischer also suggested that "expectations of thinness" - that is, endorsing thinness and a restricted food intake - could be the focus of intervention and treatment processes going forward.
Although this is thought to be the first study that has provided such a strong link between NU and eating disorders, it is by no means the first to look at how these illnesses are formed in young women within a highly pressured academic environment. Earlier this year,Professor Carrie Paechter of Goldsmiths University of London, conducted a study of girls in private schools and found that the "pressure to be perfect" - in academia, extra curricular activity and personal appearance - led many young women to develop eating disorders.
She told the Times Educational Supplement that the stress of feeling that they need to "have it all" was not only a significant factor in whether they fell prey to illnesses such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, but it could also stay with them when they leave school to pursue careers and family life.