Personality Traits of Those Who Overcome Eating Disorders

“My worst days in recovery are better than the best days in relapse.”

Posted May 15, 2018

Kristen Fuller
Source: Kristen Fuller

Eating disorders affect 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States and are mainly caused by underlying triggers associated with trauma, mental illness, and low-self esteem. Individuals with certain personality traits such as perfectionism, the need for control, and impulsivity are predisposed to eating disorders however these certain personality traits along with many others have been shown to help individuals recover from anorexia nervosa, binge eating, and bulimia nervosa. Studies have shown that there are traits specific to certain eating disorders that can be bolstered and strengthened to overcome them specifically.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, inability to maintain a minimally normal weight and extreme dietary habits that prevent weight gain. Individuals with anorexia nervosa are known to have high levels of harm avoidance, a personality trait that is characterized by worry, pessimistic thinking, doubt, and shyness. Researchers have discovered that harm-avoidance does persist after recovery; yet, individuals are still able to recover despite the traits continued presence. The key to adopting and practice positive self-affirmations and learning which coping skills can help you deal with worry and pessimistic feelings in a healthy manner. Individuals with anorexia are found to have decreased self-directedness, which is the ability to regulate and adapt behaviors to current circumstances or a chosen goal. Adopting a high level of self-directedness during eating disorder recovery can allow the individual to examine the problems, its underlying cause, and design a proactive plan to develop a specific solution. Teaching self-directedness in therapy during treatment and recovery can help individuals overcome their eating disorder in a more successful manner. Individuals with anorexia nervosa have low levels of impulsivity since this specific eating disorder is most often characterized by adhering to rigid food and lifestyle rules. Increasing impulsivity in treatment and recovery breaks down some of the barriers that these individuals cling to so tightly in order to maintain control. Those individuals who overcome anorexia learn to be at peace with not having control and learn to no longer adhere to rigid rules or expectations that do not serve them. Learning how to deal with harm-avoidance in a positive manner, increasing self-directedness and increasing impulsivity are traits that if taught in treatment to individuals, specifically with anorexia nervosa, can help lead to a successful recovery with minimum relapses.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by consuming a large amount of food within a short period of time (binging) followed by self-induced ways to rid the body of food and calories that were consumed during the binge (purging). Examples of purging often seen in both bulimia nervosa and the binge-eating/purging subtype of anorexia include self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse and excessive exercise. Unlike anorexia, individuals with bulimia nervosa are often of normal weight or are overweight and this is the key defining factor between these two disorders. Bulimia nervosa is similar to anorexia nervosa in that it is also characterized by harm avoidance. Individuals with bulimia nervosa are more likely to exhibit shyness, pessimistic thinking, excessive worry and doubt and are easily fatigued. In addition to harm avoidance, individuals with bulimia nervosa are known to have a high level of novelty seeking, a personality trait that is characterized by impulsive decision making, a short temper, an extravagant approach to reward cues, avoidance of frustration and the need to seek new and exciting stimulation. Therefore individuals, specifically who have bulimia nervosa, who learn self-control and who find activities that bring them feelings of reward that aren’t harmful or extreme are more likely to be successful in their eating disorder recovery. Hiking, running, rock climbing, performing on stage, or playing trivia can all result in the same rush of dopamine and rewarding feelings that are brought on by novelty seeking but the only difference is these activities are healthy. The goal is to find healthy alternatives that replace the dopamine rush from binging and purging.

Binge eating disorder

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by eating an excessive amount of food within a 2-hour time period and is associated with an extreme lack of self-control and shame during this episode. It is possible for an individual diagnosed with binge-eating disorder to consume as much as 3,400 calories in little more than an hour, and as much as 20,000 calories in eight hours. Unlike bulimia and anorexia nervosa, there is no compensatory purging such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or laxative abuse associated with binge-eating disorder. Intuitive eating and positive coping are two important skills that can help individuals overcome their binge eating disorder while in treatment and recovery. Intuitive eating refers to aligning your internal clock with your body and eating when you are hungry and not eating when you are full. Individuals with binge eating disorder struggle with listening to and understanding their body’s hunger and fullness cues and therefore intuitive eating is a necessary coping mechanism to adopt while in treatment. Individuals with binge eating disorder often use food to cope, which is not only ineffective but also short-lived. In treatment, it is important to adopt positive coping skills to overcome the internal and external struggles associated with binge eating disorder. Whether it is journaling, art therapy, going for a run, or engaging in a type of self-care; these positive coping skills paired with intuitive eating are two mechanisms that must be adopted during treatment and recovery. 

For more information on seeking treatment for your eating disorder. Visit Center For Discovery for treatment options, educational blogs, and community resources. 

“I am beginning to measure myself in strength, not pounds. Sometimes in smiles.”

–       Laurie Halse Anderson

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