Bullying is a becoming more prevalent throughout schools, homes, communities and online platforms across the United States. The numbers are alarming – 77 percent of school students report being a victim, while 30 percent of young people admit to bullying others. While many believe bullying to be a school-yard problem, one can experience it from peers, coaches, siblings and even parents.
The impact can be profound; victims of bullying face depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, PTSD symptoms and suicide, along with increased feelings of shame, guilt, fear and sadness – many of the same symptoms experienced by those struggling with eating disorders.
But can bullying cause an eating disorder? The short answer: Not solely, but it can be a strong contributor factor.
Many factors can lead to an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. While it’s never the same between two individuals, most cases consist of what we often refer to as a ‘perfect storm’ of vulnerabilities, as part of the biopsychosocial model of eating disorder development. This commonly includes:
• Biological: family history of eating disorders or other psychiatric disorders, certain brain chemistry, low birth weight and being a twin.
• Psychological: A person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and stress; difficulty regulating emotions; cognitive distortions in regards to reality and self.
• Social: cultural, societal and media pressures to maintain an “ideal” body type, weight or physical appearance, with any shortcomings often resulting in dissatisfaction with oneself or hurtful “body shaming” from others.
It’s the social aspect of the biopsychosocial model where the intersection of bullying and eating disorders come into play, particularly with social media. More than 80 million photos are shared on Instagram daily, 500,0000 “Likes” on Facebook every minute, 500 million Tweets per day and 9,000 photos (“Snaps”) on Snapchat every second. Although much of this content may support positive body image, some promote the opposite – body shaming – with the spreading of harmful rumors and cyber bullying of children and adolescents.
The relation of body image to bullying is strong. In a study of 600 individuals, 90 percent indicated that they are currently bullied and 75 percent reported struggling with a clinically significant eating disorder.
So, how exactly can bullying play into the development of an eating disorder? We know for sure that bullying can increase anxiety and depression, encourage withdrawal and apathy and contribute to feelings of guilt, shame and low self-esteem. What do people experiencing uncomfortable emotions want? Relief. Unfortunately, many individuals find it difficult to use the adaptive coping skills when feeling anxious or sad or guilty, and may begin using eating disorder behaviors as coping mechanisms for these intense feelings.
The onset of eating disorders are especially prevalent in children and adolescents who have been bullied for their physical size or shape. This may reflect in an increase of cognitive distortions often with the fear of gaining weight, becoming “fat” or not obtaining the perfect shape and size.
So what should you do if you or someone you love is being bullied?
Pay attention: Whether it’s ourselves or others saying negative things, spreading rumors and/or body shaming, it is important to identify what is going on. Take note if someone is isolating themselves, decreasing time with friends or family or displaying unusual eating habits (reducing food intake, hiding food or eating in secret).
Don’t ignore it: The phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” isn’t necessarily true. Words can be very damaging. The more education there is in the community, the more positive self-talk can be created. Starting and maintaining a dialogue can prevent bullying and reduce the number of cases that ultimately lead to an eating disorder.
Identify supports: There is a wealth of professionals and organizations that are able to help. This includes school counselors, therapists, psychologists and treatment programs to support with symptoms of being bullied and eating disorders. National organizations such as stopbullying.gov and nationaleatingdisorders.org are great too.
There is nothing positive or productive about bullying, especially given the harmful consequences. To learn more about the prevention of mental health-related disorders, like eating disorders, please visit www.waldencenter.org.
Nicole Pipitone, MAAT, LPC is currently the Clinical Supervisor for Adolescent Programs for the Connecticut Region at Walden Behavioral Care in South Windsor, CT. Nicole received her master’s degree in art therapy and clinical counseling from Albertus Magnus College. In 2012, Nicole found an interest in working with the eating disorder population and began working at Walden in 2013. During this time, Nicole has supported the growth of the adolescent programs for both parents and adolescents through facilitating support groups, psycho-education groups, dialectical behavioral therapy groups, cognitive behavioral therapy groups, and implementing the Family-Based Treatment model.