Eating disorder symptoms tend to be less severe in people with strong family identification

Eating disorders are a very common and often fatal form of mental illness. Having a strong support system can help alleviate some of the difficulties and symptoms associated with these mental illnesses. A study published in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology suggests that family relationships, particularly strong identification with one’s own family, may be linked to fewer and less severe eating disorder symptoms.

Eating disorders and loneliness have a strong, two-way relationship, in which loneliness worsens eating disorder symptomatology and having an eating disorder worsens feelings of isolation and loneliness . Previous research has established the importance of social connectedness for people with eating disorders, but more specific questions have remained unanswered. This study aims to better understand the role of family relationships for people with eating disorders and the mechanisms underlying the relationship.

Niamh McNamara and her colleagues conducted two studies, one where data was collected before COVID and the other during the early stages of the pandemic. Study 1 used 82 participants between the ages of 18 and 62, 80% of whom had been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder. They completed measures on family identification, loneliness, severity of erectile dysfunction symptoms, and demographics.

Study 2 used 234 participants from the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland recruited over the Internet. 67% of participants said they had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Study 2 participants completed measures of anxiety, eating disorder symptom severity, eating disorder-related impact of COVID-19, and demographics.

Results from both studies showed that family identification was linked to significantly lower levels of eating disorder symptoms. Additionally, participants with higher family identification showed lower levels of anxiety and reported fewer impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The findings support the idea that families are an important social recovery resource for people with eating disorders and help us understand why increased connection during the COVID-19 pandemic may have benefited them,” said McNamara, associate professor of social psychology at Nottingham Trent. University, in a press release.

“This suggests that families should be viewed as an important social recovery resource and should be included in the treatment of adult eating disorders, including family interventions that target repair or construction of identification. family and a collaborative approach to combat loneliness.”

Mediation analyzes suggest that family identification may help reduce symptom severity through the mechanism of reducing the loneliness of the person with the eating disorder. This implies that strong family ties can be an important protective factor against eating disorders.

“In our studies, we found that family identification was associated with reductions in the severity of eating disorder symptoms in general, as well as anxiety during the early stages of the pandemic. COVID-19,” added co-author Juliet Wakefield, senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. “This was due to the decrease in loneliness which, in the second study, predicted a reduction in fears of the eating disorder-related impact of social distancing measures.”

This study has provided insight into the mechanisms by which family relationships can alleviate the symptoms of eating disorders. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that no definitive causal relationship can be drawn from the cross-sectional data used in this study. Additionally, both studies focused primarily on white, cisgender women. Future research could focus on obtaining a more diverse sample.

The study, “The link between family identification, loneliness and symptom severity in people with eating disorders,” was authored by Niamh McNamara, Juliet RH Wakefield, Tegan Cruwys, Adam Potter, Bethany A. Jones and Sara McDevitt.

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