Eating disorders are equal-opportunity destroyers. Their sufferers develop them for many different reasons. Risk factors from psychology, biology, and genetics combine with culture to create a perfect storm. And wow, what a storm it is, especially for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).
Understanding the reasons behind the prevalence of eating disorders among HSPs comes down to high-risk traits.
Certain traits, like perfectionism and High Sensitivity, put people at higher risk for eating disorders.
The 15-20% of people born with high-sensitivity genetics are far more susceptible to developing an eating disorder than their non-HSP counterparts.
First, let’s take a look at the typical HSP. What is it like to live with a highly sensitive nervous system?
- …process information from their world, experiences, feelings, and inner life very deeply.
- …are prone to overstimulation and overwhelm, especially when surrounded by a lot of people and sensory input like noise and lights. Their well-being depends on timely withdrawal from (if not complete avoidance of) highly stimulating environments to restore themselves.
- …are emotionally sensitive and responsive. Their empathy can make them seem like mind-readers to those not so finely tuned to the energy around them.
- …are especially sensitive to environmental stimuli – such as texture, temperature, and pressure.
- …tend to be conscientious and are prone to perfectionism.
- …are often mistaken as shy.
- …are uncomfortable with time pressure and tight deadlines.
There’s a multitude of reasons for the development of eating disorders. However, there are some scientifically determined traits identified as eating disorder risk factors.
Common personality features associated with eating disorders…
- Harm avoidance (worry, pessimism, shyness, and low levels of novelty-seeking)
- Difficulty with shifting set (a measure of cognitive flexibility, e.g. difficulty moving back and forth between tasks)
- Preference for structure and routine
- Anxiety, depression, mood fluctuations (“moodiness”)
- “As if” personality
- Picky eating
- All-or-nothing thinking
Individuals with eating disorders also demonstrate high levels of perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionism is particularly common. People with self oriented perfectionism have unreasonably high standards for themselves, but not for others.
When you start to “see” the way both HSPs and people with eating disorders see themselves and experience their worlds, the prevalence of eating disorders among HSPs comes into view.
Now, let’s overlap HSPs and those with eating disorders.
What are the traits and tendencies they have in common?
What is it about living as an HSP that increases the risk of developing an eating disorder?
The overlap of High Sensitivity and eating disorder risk factors is fascinating. And clarifying.
Here are 7 reasons there’s a prevalence of eating disorders among HSPs, based on traits of High Sensitivity.
- …a finely tuned nervous system.
- …a history of people invalidating their feelings.
Eating disorders become a form of self-validation in a world that can feel very invalidating.
- …sensory experiences that can be intense and uncomfortable.
- …strong emotions.
HSPs are prone to strong emotions at both ends of the spectrum.
However, depending on the support – or lack thereof – received in childhood, they may grow up to be especially prone to depression, another trait common to eating disorders.
- …a tendency to believe and they’re “weird” and “different” and don’t fit in.
Compare this to Diet Culture and its influence on those who want to fit in by looking a certain way.
- … anxiety in the form of overwhelm or overload.
People with eating disorders are also prone to anxiety.
- … deep processing that can feel like overthinking and rumination.
Think of the way eating disorders create an obsession with weight, appearance, comparisons, and achieving unrealistic ideals.
These very same HSP experiences increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
They also complicate recovery.
Especially when the High Sensitivity trait has not been recognized.
Knowledge about the prevalence and overlap of eating disorders with High Sensitivity can be lifesaving.
And such knowledge can improve the life you’re living.
Maybe it can even lead to experiencing the best features of High Sensitivity while living without an eating disorder.
Actually, I know that’s possible.