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Aug 05, 2014 12:31 AM EDT

Anorexia May Be Fueled By Positive Emotions

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Anorexia, an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height, may be fueled by pride, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey found that positive emotions - even those viewed through a distorted lens -- may play an exacerbating role in fueling eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, which has a death rate 12 times higher for females between the ages of 15 and 24 than all other causes of death combined.

"What we think happens is that positive emotions become exaggerated and are rewarding these maladaptive behaviors," researcher Edward Selby said in a statement. "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."

For the study, researchers measured over a two week period the emotional states of 118 women between the ages of 18 and 58 being treated for anorexia nervosa. Selby found that those in the study not only suffered from negative emotions but also felt emotionally positive, having a sense of pride over being able to maintain and exceed their weight-loss goals.

They found that women in the study who had the most difficulty understanding how to recognize when positive emotions were becoming skewed, engaged in more frequent anorexia-type behaviors like vomiting, laxative use, restricting calories, excessive exercise, checking body fat and constant weight checks.

"Women with anorexia are often in complex emotional places, that is why it is important to understand all we can about what they are getting out of this experience," Selby said. "The more we know not only about the negative emotions, but also the positive emotions connected to this disease, the more likely we will be to treat this devastating illness."

Much of the positive reinforcement that may lead women with anorexia to feel good about their situation could be coming from "Pro-Anorexic" websites, where it is not unusual for individuals suffering with anorexia to be applauded for their control and courage in obtaining extreme weight loss.

This link between positive emotions and weight-loss behaviors turns into a vicious cycle for some women suffering with eating disorders who continue to lose weight even after their goals are met.

Selby said more research is needed to find a way to redirect positive emotions associated with emaciation to other healthy activities, and determine how these feelings should be addressed in treating those with eating disorders.

"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."

The findings were recently published in Clinical Psychological Science.

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