Misguided positive emotions may fuel eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.
The study, published in Clinical Psychological Science from Rutgers University, showed that people with anorexia nervosa had both negative emotions, but also positive emotions, from the eating disorder. The positive emotions stemmed from pride about maintaining and exceeding their weight-loss goals.
The study looked at 118 women between the ages of 18 to 58 who were being treated for anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa has 12 times the death rate for females, aged 15 to 24, than all other causes of death combined.
"What we think happens is that positive emotions become exaggerated and are rewarding these maladaptive behaviors," said Edward Selby, lead author of the study. "Since only about one-third of women recover after treatment, what we need to do is gain a better understanding of why these positive emotions become so strongly associated with weight loss rather than with a healthy association such as family, school or relationships."
In the study, Selby and his colleagues found that women who have difficulty recognizing positive emotions are more likely to have a skewed view of anorexia and practice more anorexia-type behaviors such as weight checks and excessive exercise.
He said anorexia is usually in the midst of many complex emotions. He said people need to understand both the negative and positive emotions in order to understand anorexia.
Some of the positive emotions result from the positive reinforcement that comes from visiting pro-anorexic websites.
This turns into a vicious cycle of women not eating, being praised for looking skinny and the women not wanting to eat to become even skinner.
Selby said he thinks that redirecting positive emotions to healthier activities such as physical fitness will be more helpful for patients with eating disorders.
Physical fitness is a good way to redirect strong emotions because they are focused on a goal of core strengthening, rather than huge weight loss.
"Being in control is important for many of these women," Selby said. "What we need to do is find a way to reconnect the positive emotions they feel in losing weight to other aspects of their lives that will lead to a more balanced sense of happiness."