Here we look at emotion processing deficits in eating disorders and whether the extent of these difficulties can predict treatment outcome three years later. This would demonstrate the ongoing role of emotion processing, as conceptualised as alexithymia, plays an ongoing role in the pathomechanism driving eating disorders.
This article also had a very good description of the somatic/emotional confusion which creates that unpleasant feeling state we have referred to before which appears to end in compulsive reactive behaviour rather than goal-directed, adaptive, evaluative, action-outcome thinking.
As we have shared before this is due to emotions not be labelled and used as guides to recruit goal directed parts of the brain but rather in their emotionally undifferentiated state they appear to compel us to react rather than consider our long term actions and their consequences.
“Several cross-sectional studies have reported high levels of alexithymia in populations with eating disorders.
However, only few studies, fraught with multiple methodological biases, have assessed the prognostic value of alexithymic features in these disorders. The aim of this study (1) was to investigate the long-term prognostic value of alexithymic features in a sample of patients with eating disorders.
The Difficulty Identifying Feelings factor of the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), often used to assess levels of alexithymia, emerged as a significant
predictor of treatment outcome. In other words, the results of this study indicated that difficulty in identifying feelings can act as a negative prognostic ( meaning predictive of something in the future) factor of the long-term outcome of patients with eating disorders.
The authors of this study also suggested that professionals should carefully monitor emotional identification and expression in patients with eating disorders and develop specific strategies to encourage labeling and sharing of emotions.
The identification of variables that predict treatment outcome in patients with eating disorders is critical if we are to increase the degree of sophistication with which we treat eating disorders…Among the several psychological features that have been proposed to predict treatment outcome in patients with eating disorders, alexithymia has attracted special interest.
Alexithymia is a personality construct characterized (partly) by a difficulty in identifying and describing feelings.
Several arguments, namely, factor analyses and longitudinal studies, have supported the view that alexithymia is a stable personality trait rather than a state-dependent phenomenon linked to depression or to clinical status [3,4].
Several studies have reported high levels of alexithymia in patients with eating disorders, especially in individuals with anorexia nervosa [5–8]. There are several reasons to believe that this construct could play a major role in the illness course of eating disorders: due to their cognitive limitations in emotion regulation, alexithymic individuals with eating disorders may resort to
maladaptive self-stimulatory behaviors such as starving, bingeing, or drug misuse to self-regulate disruptive emotions.
The results of our study indicate that one of the facets of the alexithymia construct, the difficulty in identifying feelings, is a negative prognostic factor for the long-term outcome of patients with eating disorders. Patients with the
greatest difficulties at identifying emotions at baseline are more often symptomatic at follow-up and show a less favorable clinical improvement.
There are several ways in which alexithymia can affect the clinical outcome of eating disorders: via the negative influence it exerts on the clinical expression of the disorders and on the response to therapeutic interventions.
First, the difficulty in identifying feelings may reduce the capacity of patients with eating disorders to adapt to stressful situations . Such situations generate an emotional overflow that alexithymic subjects apprehend less by emotional and cognitive features than by their associated somatic indexes. This uncertainty between feelings and bodily sensations reminds us of the interoceptive (a sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body) confusion proposed by Hilde Bruch [30,31].
Luminet et al.  have experimentally observed a dissociation of the components of the emotional response of alexithymic subjects (a physiological hyperreactivity to emotional stimuli associated to a deficit at the level of the cognitive experience), which illustrate the functioning of patients with eating disorders.
Faced with the physiological arousal induced by emotional demands, these patients may show poor adaptive strategies. They may resort to restricted patterns of repetitive and automated behaviors, such as the hyperactivity of anorexic individuals or the binges/purge cycles of bulimic subjects, which temporarily relieve their feeling of discomfort and restore their inner equilibrium [33,34] but generate, in the long term, a positive reinforcement of the eating disorder.
Second, alexithymia may be related to a chronic course of eating disorders by its relationship with other pathological behaviors, especially with addictive disorders. We have shown in previous studies that alexithymia is associated
with addictive behaviors in patients with bulimia .
Patients with eating disorders may resort to addictive behaviors to relieve the anxious and depressive feelings elicited by their negative perceptions of themselves .”
Thus to conclude, eating disorders appear to have the same emotion processing and regulation deficits as other addictive behaviours, particularly emotional differentiation, a difficulty in knowing exactly what one is feeling.
Interestingly eating disorders seem also to be driven by the same negative self perception we have seen in other addictive disorders.
1. Speranza, M., Loas, G., Wallier, J., & Corcos, M. (2007). Predictive value of alexithymia in patients with eating disorders: A 3-year prospective study.Journal of psychosomatic research, 63(4), 365-371.