Fear and anxiety are key maintaining factors for eating disorder (ED) pathology. Maladaptive fears lead to ED behaviors and avoidance, which provide temporary relief, but ultimately reinforce the fear and contribute to a cycle that maintains the ED. To date, fears of food and weight gain are the most explored fears underlying ED pathology. However, recently other important ED fears have been identified, including fears of social consequences and personal consequences.
The current study (N = 229 individuals with an ED) aimed to better characterize ED fears. Specifically, this study examined which ED fears were most endorsed across and within ED diagnoses, and if there were differences in ED fears by diagnosis and by weight status.
Overall, fear of gaining weight was the most frequently endorsed fear, followed by fear of food, and fear of judgment. Individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN) most frequently endorsed fear of food, individuals with atypical AN and bulimia nervosa: fear of gaining weight, and those with other specified feeding and eating disorder: fear of judgment. Limited differences were found between diagnoses. When examining by weight category, participants with underweight most frequently endorsed fear of food, participants with normal weight: fear of gaining weight, and participants with overweight and obesity: fear of judgment.
These findings suggest ED fears are heterogenous. Given such high heterogeneity, this work highlights the importance of assessing for specific ED fears at the beginning of treatment, which could be used to deliver personalized exposure treatment.
Public Significance Statement
Eating disorders (EDs) are serious mental illnesses with high rates of medical and psychiatric comorbidities. Fear plays an important role in the development and maintenance of EDs. The present study found fear of food, weight gain, and judgment are the most frequently endorsed fears for individuals with EDs and found few differences in fears based on ED diagnosis. These findings highlight the importance of assessing individuals’ specific ED fears for treatment.