Personality traits and uncertainty as a predictor of eating disorders

A new study presented at the International Eating Disorders Conference has shown that specific personality traits may underlie high intolerance of uncertainty in people with eating disorders.

High intolerance of uncertainty (IU) is described as a tendency to respond negatively to uncertainty in an emotional and cognitive sense and also through behaviour. People with high IU tend to avoid situations where they may not have control or know the outcome, according to researchers.

The aim of the study, conducted by Dr Amy Harrison, Martin Fisher and Dr Lot Sternheim was to find out if personality traits and attachment styles may underlie or explain some of the variants in IU observed in people with eating disorder symptoms.

Dr Amy Harrison from Regents University London said ‘perhaps one of the functions of the eating disorder behaviours is to help people to cope with uncertainty, to avoid it and to tolerate it perhaps in some way so we think uncertainty might be quite relevant to people with eating disorders.’

Research literature has shown people with eating disorders report higher levels of IU than people without, said Dr Harrison. IU may be associated with difficulty making decisions, solving problems, a poorer quality of life and functioning, she said.

‘Recovery requires you to make changes to your behaviours and in this case, health behaviours. And that asks you to be quite flexible at times and to switch to doing things perhaps in a slightly different way and develop new coping skills and strategies. This is inherent and a huge area of uncertainty,’ said Dr Harrison. ‘We don’t know what recovery will look like. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so relevant in understanding eating disorders.’

People with eating disorders tend to score low on extroversion compared to the average person and be less open to new experiences, she said.

563 women with eating disorder symptoms over the age of 18 with an average age of 35 completed the full set of questionnaires for the study.

Women with a likely diagnosis of anorexia nervosa reported more intolerance of uncertainty, anxiety, avoidance and insecure attachment as well as lower levels of extroversion and openness to experience, according to Dr Harrison. She said openness to experience was not a significant predictor of IU. However, anxious and avoidance was a significant predictor of IU as well as low levels of extroversion.

‘The main take home message for me as a clinician and a researcher is that these things are malleable and can be changed,’ said Dr Harrison. ‘New attachments and relationships can be built and I think this is something we need to have at the forefront of our mind in treatment because I think that will help to reduce some of the IU and help people face recovery a bit more easily.’

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