Lauren Feldman, a Bucknell University undergraduate psychology major and linguistics minor, conducted an experiment using language to uncover what's happening in the minds of eating disorder sufferers.
"Much of the research on eating disorders looks at weight, food and body shape as motivators," Feldman said in a statement. "But there's also a theory that eating disorders serve emotional functions rather than physical ones."
Feldman hypothesized that eating disorder sufferers under stress would react differently than non-stressed subjects to words related to eating disorders, like "starve" and "exercise." This would suggest that fluctuations in emotion triggered eating-disordered thoughts, she said.
Feldman found a clear effect of stress level on those with eating disorders -- notably, stressed participants recognized food words like "pizza" and "restaurant" at much slower rates than did non-stressed participants.
"It's as if, when stressed, eating-disordered individuals suppressed thoughts of food," Feldman said "This makes sense, because blocking out such thoughts would facilitate eating-disordered behaviors like dieting and restricting."
Feldman said treatment providers could benefit from the findings to focus more of the recovery process around emotion and coping skills.
Her findings are to be presented at Bucknell's Kalman Undergraduate Research Symposium in March.