Feb. 16, 2004
U-M researcher: eating disorders caused by more than body image
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Patients who suffer from eating disorders typically have distorted body images, thinking of themselves as fat even as they starve themselves to death.
Karen Stein, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, does not simply want to help these people change their eating habits or body image. She wants to know why they developed a poor body image in the first place, and help them overcome those root causes.
Stein specializes in psychiatric and mental health nursing, and her research focuses on personal reflections as motivators and regulators of behavior. She is in the middle of a $1.75 million, five-year National Institute of Nursing Research Grant/ National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trial of new ways to treat patients with anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Participants are 18- to 35-year-old women.
In the Possibilities Project, Stein's approach is to work with the patients on their whole range of identities that make up a person's self image, such as daughter, athlete or artist, and to focus on building these new positive identities.
The project's theory is that eating disorders stem from problems women experience in their thoughts and beliefs about themselves. Some women do not build a strong identity early in life and that leaves them feeling uncertain, confused or dissatisfied about who they are.
Stein said women with eating disorders often suffered abuse or trauma as children, and that interferes with them developing strong identities as independent women. Vulnerable in this way, they fixate on body image as a socially valued way to define themselves.
Over time, being thin becomes an important personal goal–the primary focus of what they do, who they are and how they think about themselves. The more time, energy and resources dedicated to achieving a thin identity, the fewer resources are available to develop other parts of themselves.
The Possibilities Project helps women identify what they're already good at to build confidence, and to find satisfying goals for daily life that extend beyond weight control.
While 5 million women suffer from eating disorders, which can lead to illness or death, getting well is a complicated process, Stein said. It might require a patient to acknowledge how she got to a point of needing help, and learn new ways to cope with uncertainty and dissatisfaction with oneself.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is Feb. 22-29.
Stein plans to present preliminary results of her clinical trials at the annual meeting of the International Academy of Eating Disorders in April. The project is still accepting participants. To learn more, visit the website: http://www.umich.edu/~possibil/index.htm
Contact: Colleen Newvine