Bulimia From Stress

Bulimia nervosa can develop from impulsive reactions to stress

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Girls can tear up their bodies in reaction to stress, especially if they have impulsive personality traits. Teaching positive coping methods may help these girls avoid eating disorders.

A recent study surveyed 355 college freshmen about their eating ideals and habits at the start and end of a semester. The study’s findings showed that impulsive personality traits mixed with stress increased the risk of binge eating and purging.

"Talk to your daughter about handling stress."

Sarah Fischer, PhD, assistant professor in clinical psychology at the University of Georgia, led research into binge eating and purging. For the study, 355 female, first-year college students were assessed at the beginning of the semester and again at the end for bulimia nervosa (BN) and risks associated with BN.

A risk factor for BN is a personality trait of negative urgency (NU), which is generally defined as acting rash or impulsively when under stress. In the case of BN, binge eating to cope with stress would classify as NU.

Each participant answered survey questions about her impulsive behavior, ideals about thinness and restrictions on food intake and feelings about eating. The surveys also evaluated participants for symptoms of eating disorders. Only 72 percent of the original group completed the survey again at the end of the semester.

Sixty percent of young women who tested positive for binge eating and 54 percent of women who tested positive for purging returned for the second round of testing.

Seventy-six percent of young women who did not test positive for binge eating and 74 percent of women who did not test positive for purging in the first round of testing returned for the second round.

A total of 265 binge eating episodes, ranging from 1-30, and 108 purging episodes per person, ranging from 1-33 per person, were reported at the second test.

Young women who tested higher for NU and endorsed thinness and restrictions on food intake did show higher rates for developing BN at the second test.

Young women who did not test for high expectations of thinness, but did test high for NU were at risk for developing binge eating.

Young women who tested for high expectations of thinness and high for NU were at risk for developing purging as well.

The authors concluded, “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.”

The limitations of this study are the short time span of the testing period. Further studies should begin at an earlier participant age and continue to test for a longer period.

Interventions for young women at risk for developing BN should begin earlier than college age as many of the participants already had BN at the time the study began.

Further studies are necessary to help identify the NU and eating/thinness expectancies that can become risk factors for developing BN. This study was published in July in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. No financial information was provided and no conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 26, 2012
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013