Though anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are often thought of merely in terms of nutrition, many students struggle with deep-seated psychological issues behind the surface of these disorders both during college and for years after they graduate.
Among individuals with eating disorders, there is a higher incidence of certain personality traits such as perfectionism and obsessiveness, said Dr. Hope Levin, a psychiatrist at UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services. Levin also said that there is a relationship between anxiety and eating disorders.
According to a June 2008 article in Scientific American titled “Addicted to Starvation: The Neurological Roots of Anorexia,” 80 to 90 percent of anorexic individuals report anxiety problems before the onset of anorexia.
College stressors can complicate matters for those who are perfectionistic or obsessive, Levin said.
Though eating disorders are not caused by the college environment, their development coincides with the age at which young adults go to college, she said.
Studies have shown that aspects of the college environment can exacerbate problems with certain individuals, Levin said.
College life brings with it a series of personal issues ““ whether they are about relationships, academics or family, she said. This means that the adjustment phase for new college students can especially pose problems.
“Part of college is knowing how connected and how independent you want to be,” said Gia Marson, a psychologist at CAPS, adding that college might be the first time young adults are faced with this balancing act.
“In colleges, people are thrown into more rigorous environments. People were top of their class in high school, here everyone is,” Levin said.
The behavior exhibited in eating disorders is a coping mechanism for some individuals, Marson said.
“It’s simpler to count calories every day and focus on training abs than it is to figure out how to meet your needs,” Marson said.
In the case of anorexia, it’s more about avoiding negative emotions than about feeling good. This, plus an intense desire to avoid mistakes, can result in a warped body image, according to the Scientific American article.
“It’s a mental prison, and the walls are really high. Very little gets in: numbers, food, guilt,” Marson said.
When the focus on food becomes this intense, it is not just about food anymore. People with eating disorders may be, in a sense, achieving one goal, but they are neglecting many others, said Kathleen Lambird, a psychologist at CAPS.
“What would you do with all that free time you’d have without worrying about what your body looks like?” Lambird said.
Because of the emotional backdrop at the heart of these disorders, tackling an eating disorder means much more than a change in diet.
Diet change is only the first step, Marson said. Once the diet-based changes are addressed, the individual’s relationships and internal dialogue are next in line.
Patients with eating disorders need a whole team of professionals including a nutritionist, a psychiatrist and a psychologist working closely with them, Lambird said, in addition to giving them medical checkups.
While treatment at CAPS is highly individualized, patients are not only treated in isolation. CAPS offers patients group therapy in addition to individual therapy because fellow patients can connect with each other in a way that even the professionals cannot replicate, Marson said.
Combating problems on all these different levels can prove difficult, as physiological factors complicate mental processes and vice versa. Malnutrition impairs the brain’s cognitive and judgmental capabilities as the body tries to conserve energy, Levin said.
This is a survival mechanism that happens when the brain is not getting enough glucose, Lambird added.
“Every part of you is starving when you’re underweight,” Marson said.
This malnutrition can exacerbate feelings
of obsession, Levin added.
To treat this obsession, CAPS aims
to “create an atmosphere of moderation and thoughtfulness around food,” Marson said.