Research examines link between eating pathology and defence styles

15 Jun, 2020

Researchers from The University of Sydney and The University of Western Sydney have found a link between immature defence-styles and eating disorder symptoms.

We caught up with lead author, InsideOut’s Dr. Phillip Aouad, about the emerging data he presented to the International Conference of Eating Disorders 2020.

Q: What is a ‘defence style’?

A: Freud tells us that defence styles are subconscious psychological strategies used by all people to protect themselves from negative emotions in response to some event. So, how we react to threatening situations, uncomfortable feelings and so on.

There are three types of defence style groups, according to current research: mature, neurotic and immature. Under these categories there are different defence mechanisms.

So, when it comes to say, immature defence styles, we’re talking projection, passive aggression, acting out, isolation, fanciful or magical thinking, denial, dissociation, and over rationalisation or intellectualisation.

For example, denying that there is a serious health risk when body weight is dangerously low. Or withdrawing socially, or isolating, from friends and family.

Q: Why did you want to study the link between eating disorders and defence styles?

A: Compared with the general population, individuals with eating disorders are often seen to use different combinations of these defence-styles, which could play a part in maintaining eating disorder symptoms. But it also could be the other way around: that the eating disorder symptoms have some impact on an individual's defence styles. Research into this two-way relationship between eating pathology and defence styles hasn't been explored.

This is the first study to look at eating pathology and defence styles over an extended period of time, more specifically five-years.

Because previous studies had looked at only immature defence-styles we wanted to see if the findings applied to both mature and neurotic defence-styles as well. We also wanted to see if the findings of previous studies held up over the long term.

Q: How did you undertake your research?

A: We looked at data from the Women's Eating and Health Literacy Longitudinal Study (WEHL), which tracks eating disorder symptoms, among other things, over nine-years.

We analysed the information provided by 216 women at years four and nine of the WHEL study, who had an average age of about 33 years old.

The research looked at eating disorder symptoms, also known as eating pathology; defence-styles; psychological distress; and health related quality of life - so how people would rate their mental and physical health.

Q: And you found there was indeed a relationship between immature defence-styles and overall eating pathology?

A: Yes. We did see a moderately strong relationship between immature defence style, and some eating disorder symptoms; but we didn’t find a relationship between eating disorder symptoms and neurotic or mature defence-styles over time.

Interestingly, we did see that individuals with eating disorders seemed to be using immature defence-styles less and less over that five-year period, but we need to study this further to understand what this means, what these changes might involve, and how it may help us understand how eating disorder evolve overtime.

Q: How can these results be used or applied?

A: The results may offer academics and clinicians a starting point to actually examine the types of treatments that are available and currently in use, and how helping someone shift their defence-styles through therapy could positively influence their eating disorder. So, for example, developing methods to increase adaptive defence styles in order to reduce eating pathology over time in patients who may not necessarily respond to other treatments.

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