A third or more eating disorder sufferers relapse, and most struggle to remain healthy throughout their lives. Lauren Feldman, Class of '14, wants to improve those odds.

This summer, the Bucknell University psychology major and linguistics minor ran 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," says Feldman. "But there's also a theory that eating disorders serve emotional functions rather than physical ones -- specifically, that it's a way for individuals to channel overwhelming feelings into something more concrete, like pounds and calories."

Working with faculty mentor Heidi Lorimor, assistant professor of linguistics, 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.

Feldman found a clear effect of stress level on those with eating disorders. Most 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 says. "This makes sense, because blocking out such thoughts would facilitate eating-disordered behaviors like dieting and restricting."

Feldman believes that treatment providers can benefit from experimental data like hers to focus more of the recovery process around emotion and coping skills. She'll present her results at Bucknell's Kalman Undergraduate Research Symposium in March 2013.

Related reading: