Black cats, broken mirrors, and eating disorders

My anorexic superstitions only made life seem okay.

Posted May 13, 2011

photo by just.Luc

Black cats, broken mirrors, and umbrellas opened indoors.

These superstitions and countless others can seem archaic, pointless, and even pretty silly. Black cats aren't unlucky--I find them rather cute. And I'd much rather open an umbrella indoors so as not to get wet. The fact that today is Friday the 13th doesn't have much meaning to me. But as someone with a history of OCD and anorexia, superstition and magical thinking are still very much a part of my experience.

Magical thinking isn't believing in magic tricks. It's an outgrowth of how the brain works. Human survival depends on recognizing patterns. If a red berry makes you ill once, it makes sense to avoid red berries in the future. But magical thinking takes this association to another level. It's thinking that if you avoid all red foods, then you won't get sick.

We all engage in magical thinking to a greater or lesser degree. It's part of being human. In some types of anxiety disorders, however, magical thinking can come to dominate a person's life. Although anorexia isn't an anxiety disorder, anxiety is a common symptom, and magical thinking pervades a lot of eating disordered thinking.

As long as I don't eat more than X calories, I won't get fat.

As long as I don't eat dessert, I won't get fat.

If I count calories, then my life will be okay.

If I don't binge/purge/restrict/exercise, I will go crazy.

The truth is, cake doesn't have some magic weight-gain power.  And eating disordered behaviors don't make everything in life okay, the behaviors just make life seem okay.  Looking at it another way, this type of magical thinking makes life feel manageable, under control.  It gives people a sense of power in a world that doesn't seem to care about us tiny grunts.

Although saying an eating disorder is "about control" seems like a massive oversimplification (control might be a factor, but it's not the only one), many people with eating disorders do  struggle with finding control. Enter magical thinking. A study published last month showed that people with eating disorders have a decreased tolerance of uncertainty. And this intolerance of uncertainty can directly lead to magical thinking. If you don't know what foods will be dangerous, your brain forms broad associations to protect you from harm.

A 2009 study from Science, titled "Lacking Control Increases Illustory Pattern Perception," found that feeling you had less control over a situation made you more likely to think you had seen a pattern in pictures of random dots.

From a write-up of the study:

[The researchers] showed that individuals who lacked control were more likely to see images that did not exist, perceive conspiracies, and develop superstitions.

"The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," said Galinsky. "Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening. While some misperceptions can be bad or lead one astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need."

According to Whitson, that psychological need is for control, and the ability to minimize uncertainty and predict beneficial courses of action. In situations where one has little control, the researchers proposed that an individual may believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work. To test their theory, the researchers created a number of situations characterized by lack of control and then measured whether people saw a variety of illusory patterns.

"...People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static, and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order - even imaginary order," said Whitson.

This reminds me a lot of how the need for control is discussed in ED treatment. Even though an eating disorder isn't just about control, the need for control is the underlying theme of many eating disorder behaviors, whether it is controlling what is consumed, purged, exercised, or what have you. In so many personal accounts of eating disorders, I have heard statements saying something along the lines of "when everything else felt out of control, at least I could control my food."

But this research has made me look closer and think harder about what is actually going on. Stress is a frequent trigger of eating disorder onset and relapse, and one of the most stressful things is feeling like you have no control over your life. I've been there. It sucks. So maybe if the eating disorder wasn't "about" trying to control every aspect of my food intake, maybe this lack of control contributed to why I fell for the ED delusions hook, line, and sinker.

If I was like the people in the 2009 study, then the times I was under stress, I would have been much more likely to assume that my decrease in food and increase in exercise helped make the situation resolve. It helped cement the superstitious beliefs that if I eat more than X calories or exercise less than Y hours or don't take at least Z laxatives, then all hell would break loose. Of course, nothing makes you feel more out of control than an eating disorder, so the beliefs and the need for pseudo-psychological order only increases. The "unseen mechanisms" proposed by the researchers was, in my case, the eating disorder. It simultaneously made the world go 'round, and also made my life cohere into a series of actions that I could understand and manage.

On the flipside, this research suggests that helping people gain control over their lives (which, in the case of EDs, would start with stopping symptoms) would decrease their endless mental gymnastics in trying to find a safe food, or a safe place to purge.

The irony is that recovery has brought an increased sense of control to my life. Not that I don't get angsty and panicky over the most ridiculous of things, and that my brain doesn't develop the most bizarre, sweeping generalizations seemingly at random.  But the magical thinking of anorexia is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. My anorexic superstitions only made life seem okay. Now, my life actually is okay.

About the Author

Carrie Arnold is in recovery from a decade-plus battle with anorexia and is working on her third book, Decoding Anorexia: How Science Offers Hope for Eating Disorders.

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