Stress, control, and superstition

Most humans like a sense of control in their world. Some of us (like me) like a sense of control more than others. And need for control stems from an inability tolerate uncertainty. I don't like surprises--not even in the form of presents. I don't like suspenseful movies. I don't like decisions hanging over my head. I like things to be clear and predictable.

I stumbled across a study that was published last year in the research journal Science titled "Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception" by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky that addresses some of my favorite nouns bandied about in the eating disorder world: control. fear. superstition. rituals. A press release said that

[The researchers] showed that individuals who lacked control were more likely to see images that did not exist, perceive conspiracies, and develop superstitions.

"The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," said Galinsky. "Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening. While some misperceptions can be bad or lead one astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need."

According to Whitson, that psychological need is for control, and the ability to minimize uncertainty and predict beneficial courses of action. In situations where one has little control, the researchers proposed that an individual may believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work. To test their theory, the researchers created a number of situations characterized by lack of control and then measured whether people saw a variety of illusory patterns.

"...People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static, and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order – even imaginary order," said Whitson.

This reminds me a lot of how the need for control is discussed in ED treatment. Even though an eating disorder isn't about control, the need for control is the underlying theme of many eating disorder behaviors, whether it is controlling what is consumed, purged, exercised, or what have you. In so many personal accounts of eating disorders, I have heard statements saying something along the lines of "when everything else felt out of control, at least I could control my food."

But this research has made me look closer and think harder about what is actually going on. Stress is a frequent trigger of eating disorder onset and relapse, and one of the most stressful things is feeling like you have no control over your life. I've been there. It sucks. So maybe if the eating disorder wasn't "about" trying to control every aspect of my food intake, maybe this lack of control contributed to why I fell for the ED delusions hook, line, and sinker.

If I was like the people in Whitson's and Galinsky's study, then the times I was under stress, I would have been much more likely to assume that my decrease in food and increase in exercise helped make the situation resolve. It helped cement the superstitious beliefs that if I eat more than X calories or exercise less than Y hours or don't take at least Z laxatives, then all hell would break loose. Of course, nothing makes you feel more out of control than an eating disorder, so the beliefs and the need for pseudo-psychological order only increases. The "unseen mechanisms" proposed by the researchers was, in my case, the eating disorder. It simultaneously made the world go 'round, and also made my life cohere into a series of actions that I could understand and manage.

On the flipside, this research suggests that helping people gain control over their lives (which, in the case of EDs, would start with stopping symptoms) would decrease their endless mental gymnastics in trying to find a safe food, or a safe place to purge.

This has really made me re-think the role of control in eating disorders.

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Cathy (UK) said...

Wow, I can really identify with so much of what you write in this particular blog Carrie... Control and ritual have always been central to my eating disorder. When I was severely ill, irrespective of how low my weight was, or how emaciated I looked, I felt utterly compelled to exercise to exhaustion every day and to adhere to a restrictive meal plan - for fear of otherwise having no control.

At the height of my anorexia nervosa (5-6 years ago), when the illness had totally consumed me, I can recall pushing myself to continue my morning exercise regime, even though I was experiencing palpitations and had an ED-related, diagnosed heart condition. The fear of 'loss of control' outweighed my fear of dying through pushing my weakened heart in vigorous exercise...

Even now, over 30 pounds heavier than my very low weight, I feel I am only able to 'survive' life if my day comprises a series of rituals. In order to recover to the level that I have recovered to date, I have had to swap dangerous diet and exercise rituals for safe, albeit futile rituals. Without rituals, I feel I have no control. I guess I just don't do spontaneity...

KristineM said...

Thanks for posting about this, Carrie.

I think that the default human condition is one where we naturally feel "in control". When anyone feels highly stressed and anxious, by definition that person feels out-of-control. For those of us who are lucky enough to not have anxiety issues, those feelings of high anxiety are temporary. We find a solution, or if we can’t find one, we let the problem go and move on.

It seems to me that the overly-anxious person feels so much mental discomfort from her unrelenting anxieties that she is unable to cope with them. By definition, she feels out-of-control all or most of the time. The real need, as I see it, is relief from this overwhelming anxiety so that the sufferer can return to the default mode of calmness and feelings of capability.

Unfortunately, all hell breaks loose when a predisposed person becomes malnourished, feels temporary calmness, and then seeks to maintain that feeling by continuing to restrict, binge and/or purge, beyond all reason, in an attempt to allay that anxiety. I support bringing an ED sufferer back to full physical health as soon as possible so that rational thought is possible and strategies to deal with life's challenges can be learned.

Kim said...

My therapist often tells me that the key is to feel safe within myself, to feel in control naturally. I envy people who are like this. I'm always looking for things outside myself -- grades, food, etc -- to give me a sense of order and predictability. Like you, I hate not being in control. Things like flat tires send me into a ridiculous tizzy. Like you say, I think I fell for the delusions of anorexia hook, line, and sinker. I'm a very cause-and-effect person. I didn't start restricting because I thought it would give me a feeling of power and security. But, once I was restricting, I made the associations -- restricting helped me stay calm. It gave me purpose. I loved the rules and rituals. Looking back, it seems very odd to me. It does seem like a lot of superstition, a lot of "if this, then that." I think I'll always be vulnerable to simple equations like that, whether it's related to food or not.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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