Academic pressure, the strive for perfection and eating disorders

26 April 2016

A recent study by Helen Bould and colleagues1 found a link between the increased academic pressures facing young people and the increasing prevalence of eating disorders.

Does, as the results from the study suggest, the high pressure to achieve and the push from society, parents and schools towards achieving academically, encourage greater perfectionism which can trigger eating disorders in girls?

It is undeniable that young people are facing increasing pressures to achieve more and work harder when faced with increasing competition for university places and a decreasing job market. The impact of this is not only placing increased pressure on young people in general but can be a trigger for young people who are at risk of poor mental health. 

A recent NSPCC report found that from 2013 to 2014 there was a 45% increase in 12-16 year olds using their services due to school stress. For young people who are vulnerable to developing a mental health problem, this is worrying. It is of particular importance when considering eating disorders, which are often linked to people with perfectionist personality traits: they often place high demands on themselves to achieve and be perfect.2

Many research studies have shown the link between perfectionism and eating disorders, such as in people with anorexia3. For someone with high perfectionist tendencies, not achieving this so-called 'perfection' can feel to them like they are a failure.

For some people, this is more than just failing an exam or not doing well in a particular task. Failing can become a reflection that they themself are good enough. 'If I achieve, I am good, if I fail I am bad.'

This detail-focused and perfectionist mindset can be incredibly difficult and impact on every aspect of life; whether that means spending five hours writing out homework over and over until it looks perfect to them or if it means only being satisfied with exam results in the high 90s.

It’s not surprising, then, that these tendencies can overtake one’s life and make even the simplest of tasks difficult. 

Perfection and eating disorders

The link between perfectionism and eating disorders highlights how some mental health problems can develop and what puts some people at higher risk of developing mental health problems than others. It is easy to assume that an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia develops because someone wants to lose weight, in the same way we might assume that someone who has a binge eating disorder really enjoys eating.

When we look further into the underlying thoughts and feelings that drive and motivate these behaviours, we can often see that there is much more to mental health than what we can see. 

Of course eating disorders on the surface seem to be about food, eating and weight: the symptoms, the names and the way we talk about these mental health problems lead us to that assumption. The media hardly help in the way they portray these conditions when they report weights, food diaries and focus on the physical symptoms. What is often missing in the discourse is how we talk about the mental health side of things.

Eating disorders do not develop as simply a way to lose weight, but from the interaction between a range of factors including biological and psychological risk factors that makes one vulnerable to developing the condition. For example, in a class of 30 students, all face similar academic and social pressures, but only a small number of students will go on to develop an eating disorder, which means that other factors must be present and at play for someone to develop anorexia, for instance.

Anyway why is this important? Well, if we can understand the core aspects underlying eating disorders, even before symptoms are evident, then we have the chance to change and prevent these conditions from becoming life long and life threatening.

New treatment models and prevention programs which address these core aspects and beliefs that underlie the condition rather than the symptoms are showing promising outcomes5. Moving from being reactive to symptoms to being proactive in reducing the core risk factors to developing illness in the first place is necessary to help reduce the loss life that such mental health problems have on those who experience them.

Follow Una on Twitter


References

  1. Bould, H., De Stavola, B.L., Magnusson, C., Micali, N., Dal, H., Evans, J., Dalman, C. & Lewis, G. (2016). The influence of school on whether girls develop eating disorders. International Journal of Epidemiology. 
  2. Shafran, R., Cooper, Z. & Fairburn, C.G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: a cognitive-behavioural analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40 (7), 773-791.
  3. Lloyd, S., Schmidt, U., Khondoker, M. & Tchanturia, K. (2014). Can Psychological Interventions Reduce Perfectionism? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy. doi:10.1017/S1352465814000162
  4. Schmidt et al., (2015). The Maudsley Outpatient Study of Treatments for anorexia Nervosa and Related Conditions (MOSAIC): Comparison of the Maudsley Model of Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults (MANTRA) with specialist supportive clinical management (SSCM) in outpatients with broadly defined anorexia nervosa: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83 (4), 796-807.