11 psychological causes of bulimia


In this article, I will explain who can be affected by bulimia and the 11 major psychological causes of this disease.

Table of contents

Bulimia is an eating disorder (ED) whose main symptom is food cravings. Deleterious on several levels, the disease generates a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape alone.

The origins of the disorder are multifactorial. To help you better understand why this type of eating behavior develops and thus give you food for thought to get out of it, here are 11 causes of bulimia.

Bulimia nervosa
Bulimia nervosa

What causes bulimia in a person?

The onset of the disease is usually linked to stressful events. Being bulimic is explained by a bundle of different individual factors which are psychological and genetic. The influence of family, culture, and environment is also important.

The exact reasons for the onset of bulimia have not been discovered to date, although research has shed some light.

On the neurological level, a dysfunction in the transmission of serotonin alters the sensations felt at the level of satiety and hunger.

The neuronal satiety center is not stimulated properly, so appetite regulation is not done properly. On the endocrine level, a hormonal deficit affecting ovarian functions could be involved in women.

There are three types of bulimia factors:

  1. Predisposing factors: they promote the ground for eating disorders;
  2. Trigger factors: they are responsible for the development of the disease at a specific time;
  3. Maintaining factors: they encourage the vicious cycle of binge eating.

Cause 1: Trauma

One of the main psychological causes of bulimia is an emotional shock. The most common triggering factors are traumatic life events, which are also present in people with hyperphagia or anorexia. Β 

Without being at the very origin of the inner malaise that makes you suffer, they were present before the arrival of the affection and favored the switch to this eating disorder.

It can be the loss of a loved one, a divorce, but also physical abuse, psychological violence, or sexual abuse.

Emotional deficiencies or relational difficulties within the family are sometimes responsible for triggering bulimia.

Cause 2: A genetic predisposition to eating disorders

There is no specific gene for this disorder, but the numerous studies carried out show that the pathology is associated, like anorexia, with a genetic predisposition.

When an eating disorder, in this case, bulimia, runs in the family, then there is a three-fold increase in the risk of developing one as well.

Family history, therefore, plays a role in the causes of bulimia. This family risk is increased if other disorders are present, in particular depression and alcohol dependence.

Finally, weight issues such as obesity also have an unfavorable causality.

Cause 3: Emotional difficulties

Emotional inhibition is often found in people with bulimia. You may find it difficult to express your emotions, which causes inner unease.

Not having the ability to recognize and accept your effects causes the need to control them otherwise, and this sometimes involves turning them off, silencing them, with food: you eat your emotions.

Attachment disorders, linked to psycho-affective deficiencies or a feeling of insecurity in childhood, could have generated emotional dependence in you. Otherwise, when you cannot be soothed by the presence of the other, food takes its place: bulimia is used to fill a void.

Bulimic eating behavior is similar to food addiction. However, this dependence does not prevent the feeling of insecurity that persists.

This is one of the characteristics found in people suffering from this eating disorder: trust in others is weak, doubt is omnipresent, and even takes the form of a threat and this causes a lot of anxiety.

Cause 4: Depression

Depression can be one of the causes of bulimia.

It is common in people who suffer from it and is also found in the family history. Your eating disorder may have appeared following a depressive episode.

Depression aggravates the condition: the stronger it is, the more frequent binge eating and the less easy it is to get out of it.

But the depressive symptoms are themselves encouraged and reinforced by bulimia. Indeed, when you are in the grip of this eating disorder, you fight internally not to crack and yet, the vicious pattern of the disease leads you irremediably towards crises.

The undernutrition caused by the pathology causes deficiencies in essential amino acids and fatty acids: this lack consequently leads to a strong deterioration in your mood.

Cause 5: Stress and Anxiety

Bulimia and stress are strongly linked. Stress is a factor favoring the onset of the disorder. We find psychosocial stressors, as we saw earlier, which are life traumas.

But daily stressful elements also exist: drastic diets will generate states of anxiety, as well as the succession of competitions among athletes, for example.

A state of continuous stress, anxiety, and even anxiety disorders encourage the emergence of bulimia but also causes maintenance in the disease. Generalized anxiety disorder is frequently present before the onset of bulimia.

But you probably suffer from anxiety as a result of the disorder, as you try to stay in control so you don't give in to compulsive eating attacks. These losses of control promote impulsive behavior and therefore the occurrence of bulimia attacks, which are most of the time purgative.

Guilt reinforces your anxious state, you are afraid of having to face, once again, what you fear most.

Cause 6: Pathologies

Certain illnesses play a role in the causes of bulimia. This is the case with other TCAs, for example, such as merycism or anorexia nervosa, which can be antecedents to bulimia and will cause it to be triggered.

Other pathologies require the establishment of a specific diet, such as type 1 diabetes. A history of overweight and obesity accentuates the manifestation of bulimia.

It is also very often the establishment of a drastic diet that will predispose and then trigger its mechanics.

Indeed, low-calorie diets promote the development of bulimia, when they are carried out repeatedly and without success.

Cause 7: Weight loss diets

Bulimia is usually preceded by periods of food restriction.

These diets, often dichotomous in their process, deprive the body of what it needs and it, therefore, goes on alert, its metabolic functioning is impacted and the regulatory signals are weakened.

The fear of getting fat and the behavioral factors caused by this diet will participate in the onset and maintenance of the disease.

Cause 8: A family circle

Your entourage and the relations maintained with him, in the past or present, play a role in the causes of your bulimia.

As we have seen, emotional deficiencies in childhood may have given rise to a feeling of insecurity.

Families that are too suffocating, or conversely totally ignorant, daily conflicts, reflections, and hurtful remarks about your body made by one of your relatives, are all elements predisposing to the onset of bulimia.

Similarly, family food beliefs may have become anchored in your mind and unconsciously steered your relationship to food. Indeed, the nutritional education you received may have favored the arrival of the pathology.

Whether through punitive behavior (finishing the plate without being hungry) or idealistic (pressure to eat healthily), all of your consumption habits have been impacted and you have grown up with these beliefs without being able to get rid of them.

Cause 9: Intensive physical exercise

The risk of developing bulimia is greatly increased if you have been, in the past, in childhood or adolescence, very invested in a high-level sports activity, even semi-professional (with the establishment of competitions, for example).

The practice of this intensive activity generally continues during the emergence of bulimic disorder.

These sports (gymnastics, swimming, dancing, or running) require a lot of exercise, and weight control and a diet adapted to sports practice are frequently required by those in charge of training.

This hyper control, the cult of the athletic body, and the associated restrictions favor the appearance of bulimia.

Cause 10: The cult of thinness causes bulimia

Bulimia also develops because of various socio-cultural factors and in particular those which advocate thinness, by ideals which it is often very difficult to confirm.

Industrialized countries value and encourage a slim, healthy, and controlled body ideal. However, on the contrary, society and social networks also enjoin people to let go, to β€œbody-positivism”, to take care of themselves, and accept themselves as they are.

These growing injunctions reinforce the feeling of dissociation and do not allow finding a happy medium with which to identify.

The socio-cultural factors present, at the time of celebratory meals for example, also encourage the race to overconsumption. You have to eat to have fun, but above all eat too much, excessively.

It is then a question of making you feel guilty so that you return to strict control, in order to "eliminate your two kilos gained in December" thanks to the many slimming diets on the front page of the so-called "feminine" press...

This obsession of society for the perfect body points the finger at the silhouettes out of line by making them feel guilty, under the guise of health problems that would be eminently correlated with being overweight.

Eating better, less fat, less sugar, less salt, exercising regularly, accepting oneself... All these messages cognitively reinforce collective beliefs and in particular the fact that thinness is equal to health.

The consequences are multiple:

  1. Willingness to control one's body in a worrying way,
  2. Lack of pleasure in eating,
  3. Diets and diets started early,
  4. Distorted perception of body image and β€œreal” bodies.

All of this contributes to creating a bad food relationship and initiating behaviors to compensate, for example, making oneself vomit, abusing laxatives, and fasting, techniques favored by anorexics as much as bulimics.

These behaviors have very serious repercussions on the physical and mental health of the sufferer.

Cause 11: personal characteristics

Certain mental characteristics may be involved in the occurrence of bulimic disorder:

  1. Lack of self-confidence,
  2. Perfectionist personality traits,
  3. Desire to be in a state of conformism,
  4. Dysmorphophobia (distorted vision of one's body),
  5. The attraction for images of physical perfection,
  6. Rejection of one's own body,
  7. Strong importance is given to social pressure,
  8. Excessive emotional needs,
  9. Impulsive temperament.

Sometimes, it is social factors that can plunge you into the infernal spiral of bulimia: peer pressure and networks favor decreasing body satisfaction by projecting ideal silhouettes that are impossible to achieve. This reverberates on the self-esteem which collapses.

Who can be affected by bulimia?

The disorder of bulimia generally appears towards the end of adolescence, the peak is between 18 and 20 years old, and affects 1.5% of 11-20-year-olds. Bulimia also affects men: one boy is affected for every three girls.

As we have seen, the causes of bulimia bring out more at-risk profiles. First of all, young teenage girls, are in the line of fire in the CAW in general. Then, people working in environments where the body is at the center of the activity, requiring control of self-image and weight control, are more exposed to the disease: modeling, athletics, gymnastics...

Genetics, social pressures, family context, self-confidence, associated disorders, beliefs, and cognitive functioning, increase the risk of occurrence of this food pathology.

Personalities that are anxious, reserved, experiencing emotional difficulties, and who attach great importance to body image and the image they reflect are more likely to develop bulimic disorder.

Great attention is paid to food, which becomes obsessive and generally results in the establishment of a restrictive diet.

Bottom line

It is crucial to identify early clinical signs or warning signs, in order to diagnose the disease and avoid its eroticization.

Bulimia is a serious condition, with extremely dangerous consequences for the body, the mind, and the relationship.

Putting an end to bulimia attacks and curing the disease is possible, the implementation of an appropriate follow-up (such as cognitive and behavioral therapies) brings excellent results and prevents recurrences.

Knowing the causes and factors, whether predisposing, triggering, or blocking, is essential to allow you to move forward.

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative, I have no authority to make a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I invite you to visit a psychologist to treat your particular case.