The Relationship Between Attachment & Eating Disorders

Friends are Factors in Anorexia Treatment

The ways in which we forge a connection with others impacts every area of our lives, including our mental health. These attachment patterns can develop throughout any period of the lifespan and are often connected to the many familial, social, professional, and romantic relationships we encounter. In some cases, it can become an attachment disorder, which can lead to other struggles throughout adulthood.

What is Attachment Disorder and How is it Formed?

Childhood and infancy are particularly vulnerable life stages, and how one’s relational needs are met during this stage can impact their attachment throughout the lifespan.

Some individuals may develop what is referred to as Attachment Disorders, “psychiatric illnesses that can develop in young children who have problems in emotional attachments to others [1].”

These problems are often attributed to emotional, physical, or psychological abuse, trauma, or neglect. Experiences such as this impact a child’s ability to develop a secure attachment style – an attachment style where they feel protected by their caregiver and feel that they will meet their needs.

“A secure attachment relationship provides a base from which to explore and, ultimately, contributes to the integration of neurobiological, cognitive, affective, and behavioral capacities that influence ongoing and future relationships, as well as the understanding of self [2].”

However, even children with a secure attachment style and loving upbringing can develop an attachment disorder. Therefore, it is not fair to attribute disorder development to the family alone.

Impact

Friends can be impacted by an attachment disorder and how you connect with other peopleStudies show that there is also a likely neuronal component to attachment disorders and that they “may be associated with changes that occur in the temporal lobes of the brain, specifically in the amygdala [3].” Ultimately, there is no officially known cause of attachment disorders.

What is known is how one’s attachment can impact their mental health, as attachment disorders are associated with increased diagnoses of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and eating disorders [3].

Research shows a “strong association between insecure attachment and various types of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder [3].”

One study determined that “lack of trusting and reliable relationships does not only set apart eating disorder individuals from controls, but, also characterizes unhealthy eating behaviors in the general population [4].”

There are many ways in which food and attachment can merge. Eating disorder behaviors can develop as a maladaptive coping skill for many life challenges such as the traumas and abuses mentioned above. They also may be used as a subconscious method of having relational needs met.

In this, individuals that do not know how to communicate painful or challenging thoughts and feelings or have attempted to do so before without feeling heard may use disordered eating behaviors to communicate and have their relational needs met.

Individuals may also feel isolation and loneliness due to their attachment disorder and may begin disordered eating behaviors in an effort to cope. Truly, there can be numerous reasons for attachment disorder and eating disorder development.

For those who work with or love someone with an eating disorder, discussing attachment and how it relates to their individual experience can help explore any connections between the two.


Resources:

[1] Unknown (2014). Attachment disorders. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Attachment-Disorders-085.aspx.

[2] Cicchetti, D., Doyle, C. (2016). Child maltreatment, attachment, and psychopathology: mediating relations. World Psychiatry, 15:2.

[3] Davies, N. (2020). Understanding adult attachment disorders. Psychiatry Advisor. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/general-psychiatry/understanding-adult-attachment-disorders/.

[4] Fabre, A., Dube, L., Knauper, B. (2017). Attachment and eating: a meta-analytic review of the relevance of attachment for unhealthy and healthy eating behaviors in the general population. Appetite.


About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published December 28, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on December 28, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.