The Link Between Negative Emotions and Eating Disorder Behaviour in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa


Ester M. S. Espeset, PhD, Division of Mental Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, PO Box 4404 Nydalen, No-0403 OSLO, Norway. Tel: +4798816653.




Several theoretical models suggest that deficits in emotional regulation are central in the maintenance of anorexia nervosa (AN). Few studies have examined how patients view the relationship between negative affect and anorectic behaviour. We explored how patients with AN manage the aversive emotions sadness, anger, fear and disgust, and how they link these experiences to their eating disorder behaviours.


Qualitative data were collected through semi-structured interviews with 14 women aged 19–39 years diagnosed with AN (DSM-IV). Interviews were analyzed using Grounded Theory methods.


The participants tended to inhibit expression of sadness and anger in interpersonal situations and reported high levels of anger towards themselves, self-disgust and fear of becoming fat. Different emotions were managed by means of specific eating disorder behaviours. Sadness was particularly linked to body dissatisfaction and was managed through restrictive eating and purging. Anger was avoided by means of restrictive eating and purging and released through anorectic self-control, self-harm and exercising. Fear was linked to fear of fatness and was managed through restrictive eating, purging and body checking. Participants avoided the feeling of disgust by avoiding food and body focused situations.


Treatment models of eating disorders highlight the significance of working with emotional acceptance and coping in this patient group. Knowledge about how patients understand the relationships between their negative emotions and their anorectic behaviour may be an important addition to treatment programmes for AN. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association.