Another example of gene/environment interaction

Avoidant personality traits are common in people with anorexia, and I have to admit that I fit the bill. The Merck Manual describes avoidant personality as this:

People with an avoidant personality are overly sensitive to rejection, and they fear starting relationships or anything new. They have a strong desire for affection and acceptance but avoid intimate relationships and social situations for fear of disappointment and criticism.

Now, I know I don't have a personality disorder, but I definitely have a history of avoiding many social situations and being quite sensitive to rejection. I've found that my confidence in social situations is pretty low, and instead of giving my full attention to the conversation at hand, I'm obsessing about the size of my butt, if there's broccoli in my teeth or toilet paper stuck to my shoe, and thinking up something theoretically interesting to say that probably has nothing to do with what everyone is talking about. Needless to say, this isn't very fun and just reinforces my avoidance of All Things Social.

A new study in Psychological Science found that

People with so-called "avoidant" personalities, who fear intimacy, also tend to shun the kind of social situations that could lead them to forge meaningful relations with others, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.

In an interview with the BPS Research Digest (also the source of the above quote), the lead authors said that

their findings provided a specific example of an under-explored area - that is, how personality can affect people's lives by influencing the situations they place themselves in. "By sidestepping [socially diagnostic] situations ... avoidant individuals may protect themselves from intimacy, loss of control, and early rejection, but they also forgo the joys and benefits of a reciprocal, trusting relationship," the researchers said, "as well as the benefits that early negative signals can serve in limiting investments into relationships not worthy of such investments."

This seems to be another example of how genes and environment interact, and how trying to separate the two is futile. Environment affects your genes and how they are expressed, and your genes can affect which environments you seek out.

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Anonymous said...

Well said, as usual!

Libby said...

So, umm... did you sneak into my therapy session and take notes or something? Because this is seriously, something we've been talking a lot about... my tendency to isolate... and associated stuff... I think this is a really important issue. Thanks for brining it up!

Anonymous said...

I was once told I had a personality disorder (most likely avoidant or dependent), but subsequent, very thorough testing revealed that I have an autism spectrum condition (ASC). It is this ASC that has driven my anorexia. I had obsessions and compulsions right from being a toddler. That was diagnosed as OCD as a young child. My anorexia started in my early teens and was similar in nature to my previous obsessions and compulsions. The only difference was in the focus of these obsessions and compulsions - i.e. about food, weight and exercise.

Carrie Arnold said...


I definitely have avoidant personality traits, but no one has (to my knowledge, anyway) diagnosed me with a personality disorder. I also definitely have OCD, and I see that as the driving force behind my eating disorder. The AN obsessions (certain calorie counts were "good" and others were "bad," rules about sodium and fiber consumption, foods you could eat together and foods you couldn't) were straight out of the OCD "rulebook." It's just OCD about food.

I find myself an avoidant person in general. If I can avoid something or put it off or weasel my way into having someone else do it, I will. I also have moderate social anxiety--again, not a disorder, but it fits right in with those avoidant personality traits. Although the authors may have done research with people with the full blown disorder (which makes sense, from a research perspective), I find many of these qualities echo with my own experiences. And it's the DBT idea of "opposite action" that would seem to help me in this regard the most. The need to put myself out there and get feedback. I can handle people not liking me (I don't like it, but I can deal with it), I just can't handle not knowing why. On par with that is not knowing if someone likes me, which is much more anxiety provoking than "No, so-and-so hates my guts."

Sorry, I'm rambling. Dinner is overdue!

samsi77 said...

This makes a lot of sense and also goes hand in hand with the research being done on personality traits that are innate and exist prior to the onset of the ED and increase vulnerability towards developing the ED. In regards to ED the personality characteristic being examined is as "harm avoident" and use of cognitive remediation therapy is suggested. Jane just posted great video clip on this at Maudsley Parents

Carrie Arnold said...

I think the term "harm avoidant" summarizes both this post and the next one on anxiety--it's a trait I see in many people with EDs.

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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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