Saturday, April 30, 2011

Exercise addiction - distorted pursuit of attractiveness?

exercise addiction

Overexercising - obsessive weight-lifting or running, compulsive gym routines, or psychological dependence on exercise - is an illness. The health and fitness benefits of exercising are undeniable. However by overexercising the distorted pursuit of attractiveness takes precedence over fitness. Exercise addiction indicates a body image disorder; a distortion of the individual's mental representation of his or her own body. When I first commented on this phenomenon in 2001 body image disorders were a rarity in India (Misquitta 2001).

Pune is fascinated with its physique. Witness the mushrooming gyms and spas in every neighbourhood. Men dissatisfied with their appearance throng them to reduce or gain weight in pursuit of an ideal muscularity depicted on huge sports hoardings. An 18 year old ‘hunk’ is ashamed to wear T-shirts convinced his pectorals are too thin. He has no time to left to socialise at the end of his daily 5-hour workout. Women join gyms to lose weight and attain a waif-like slenderness. A 23 year old is advised by her trainer to cut down on her punishing exercise regimen - she changes her gym and continues to lose further weight. Exercising is no longer about fitness - it's about beauty.

From an evolutionary perspective attractiveness has universal criteria. These serve as cues to a persons reproductive ability. Males and females select partners that will enhance their reproductive success. Body characteristics signal reproductive advantage and render one individual more ‘desirable’ than another

Males desire muscular mesomorphism - the ideal body shape of broad shoulders, a muscular stomach, chest and shoulders, and a thin waist. This usually means about 10kg more muscle and 4kg less fat than their current physique. Positive characteristics of strength, bravery, health, and good looks are associated with this physique. Males also feel that looking fit is essential to career advancement. This discrepancy between actual physique and the desired culturally ‘ideal’ muscular physique is pushed at us from magazine covers, movies, posters, and toys (Todd G 2006).

For women body image is related to weight rather than shape (Viren Swami 2006). Urbanisation has placed unprecedented opportunities and demands on women. Slim women are used by the media to portray desirability. These socio-cultural demands have altered the evolutionary ‘hour-glass’ ideal for women. The emphasis is on slender and glamorously adorned women, striving for career accomplishment while maintaining their attractiveness. Increase in affluence also brings with it an epidemic of obesity that legitimises the pursuit of thinness and fear of fatness. Women exercise to lose body fat and improve muscle tone without increasing muscle mass.

Exercising is distorted into a pursuit of attractiveness for some individuals. These individuals pump iron, creatine, and steroids if they are males; or run and starve themselves if they are females. They lose their sense of perspective. Their bodies turn grotesque or gaunt. But when they look in the mirror they see some more work that requires to be done on some particular body mass.

At this stage they have developed body image distortions. Experiments have consistently shown that high mileage runners have a distorted perception of body size, they overestimate their waist size as compared to recreational runners (Wheeler 1986). Overexercising males who join gyms to increase muscle mass, and underweight females who overexercise are more likely to have body image disorders (Sergia-Garcia 2010). These body image disorders include anorexia nervosa in females and muscle dysmorphia (reverse anorexia or bigorexia) in males.

Muscle dysmorphia in males is the end stage of excessive exercising for muscularity (Pope 1997).
  • Preoccupation with the appearance of the body
  • Concern with not being sufficiently large or muscular
  • Persistent weight lifting and dieting

Anorexia nervosa in females is the result of excessive exercising for slimness.
  • Fear of fatness
  • Dieting and exercising to maintain low body weight or continue losing body weight
  • Underweight at least 15%
  • Absence of three consecutive menstrual cycles

When should you suspect a body image disorder in an exercise freak (James E Leone 2005)?
  1. Excessive and inordinate time is spent on grooming and appearance. The exercise is done with the aim of enhancing appearance rather than performance. When the person is not exercising he or she spends time being worried, depressed or anxious about appearance
  2. Avoidance of social and work obligations either due to a sacrosanct exercise schedule or embarrassment due to perceived deformities in appearance
  3. Dieting, supplements and drugs to enhance physical appearance. A large proportion of income could go towards this

What to do for someone who is obsessed with exercising?
  • Verify the facts discretely to substantiate warning signs as noted above
  • Chose a comfortable setting where you are not going to be disturbed
  • Offer some of the information that raised red flags on body image concerns when the person asks what it’s all about.
  • Deal with denial which is the first response. You need to listen, acknowledge, and submit your previously gathered observations non-confrontationally
  • Suggest psychiatric referral and offer to accompany the individual
  • Deal firmly with refusal which is the next response. Show concern that this is a serious disorder and that you would be irresponsible if you didn’t get the individual to consult a psychiatrist.

Exercise for fitness - attractiveness will follow

  1. James E Leone, Edward J Sedory, and Kimberly A Gray. Recognition and Treatment of Muscle Dysmorphia and Related Body Image Disorders J Athl Train. 2005 Oct–Dec; 40(4): 352–359.
  2. Misquitta NF. Anorexia Nervosa : A Caucasian Syndrome Rare in Asia. 2001 Jan; 57(1): 82-3
  3. Pope HG Jr, Gruber AJ, Choi P, Olivardia R, Phillips KA. Muscle dysmorphia. An underrecognized form of body dysmorphic disorder. Psychosomatics. 1997 Nov-Dec;38(6):548-57.
  4. Segura-GarcĂ­a C, Ammendolia A, Procopio L, Papaianni MC, Sinopoli F, Bianco C, De Fazio P, Capranica L. Body uneasiness, eating disorders, and muscle dysmorphia in individuals who overexercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Nov;24(11):3098-104.
  5. Viren Swami. The influence of body weight and shape in the determination of female and male physical attractiveness. In: Body Image: New research. Marlene V Kindes Ed. Nova Science Publishers. New York. 2006. pp35-61
  6. Todd G Morrison, Melanie A Morrison, Leigh McCann. Striving for Bodily Perfection? An overview of the drive for muscularity. In: Body Image: New research. Marlene V Kindes Ed. Nova Science Publishers. New York. 2006. pp1-34
  7. Wheeler GD, Wall SR, Belcastro AN, Conger P, Cumming DC. Are anorexic tendencies prevalent in the habitual runner? Br J Sports Med. 1986 Jun;20(2):77-81.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Relationship conflict and strain in youth

Precious stone inlay - Deeg, Rajashtan

Some relationships are characterised by conflict and strain and this can be detrimental to mental health in youth. Romantic relationships are important for mental health during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Satisfaction in the relationship is strongly related to regard and empathy with the partner (Cramer 2003). Intimacy increases positive feelings in the relationship. The perceived quality of a relationship depends more on the presence of intimacy than on absence of conflict (Laurenceau 2005).

We have already noted the various the reactions to breakup of relationships. We now take a look at some psychological aspects of conflict and strain in ongoing relationships of young persons.

Gender aspects of ongoing relationships

For a young woman an ongoing and current relationship is associated with feelings of psychological well-being. For her just being in a romantic relationship provides a social identity and increases feelings of self- worth. This need to be in a relationship increases especially when there is gender inequality in the family. After a recent breakup; the altered social identity and reduction of self-worth make her prone to clinical depression.

For young men the quality of the ongoing relationship is more important. Men’s identity and feelings of self-worth are greatly affected by the support or strain they experience from their partner. This is because their romantic partner is their primary source of intimacy. In contrast young women have intimate relationships with family and friends. (Simon & Barrett, 2010). Men benefit more than women from support gained through a relationship; they are also more disturbed than women by strain in an ongoing relationship. When in a strained relationship men are likely to develop substance abuse problems.

Conflict in relationships

The quality of conflict negotiation between the partners in a relationship evolves over time. Initially the romantic bond overshadows the ability to acknowledge and deal with differences. The partners downplay their disagreements and fail to negotiate their differences. Later on, in stable relationships there is an increasing capability to recognize and face disagreements and to negotiate them in a better manner (Shulman 2008).

Personal characteristics and attachment style also play a role. Self-directed and autonomous people are generally less defensive and more understanding in their response to conflict (Knee 2005). Insecure, anxious individuals experience more conflict with their dating partners. Their conflicts tend to escalate in severity. These individuals require daily support to experience satisfaction with the relationship. As perceptions of satisfaction and intimacy change, commitment to the relationship is eroded over time (Campbell 2005). Family background of the partner is also important. The individual's style of handling conflict is learned through interactions with the mother and with siblings. This persists into the romantic relationship (Reese-Weber 2005).

Predictors of break-up

  • Breakup of the romance is imminent when the pattern of interaction between partners is characterised by criticism, unrealistic expectations, or withdrawal.
  • The best single predictor of impending breakup is contempt. This is especially so when the female partner displays contempt (Gottman 1994).
  • Substance abuse problems in any of the partners increases conflict and hostility in the relationship (Floorsheim 2008).
  • Adolescents with personality disorders are more likely to have conflict in their relationships (Chen 2004).

  1. Campbell L, Simpson JA, Boldry J, Kashy DA. Perceptions of conflict and support in romantic relationships: the role of attachment anxiety. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2005 Mar;88(3):510-31.
  2. Chen H, Cohen P, Johnson JG, Kasen S, Sneed JR, Crawford TN. Adolescent personality disorders and conflict with romantic partners during the transition to adulthood. J Pers Disord. 2004 Dec;18(6):507-25.
  3. Cramer D. Facilitativeness, conflict, demand for approval, self-esteem, and satisfaction with romantic relationships. J Psychol. 2003 Jan;137(1):85-98.
  4. Florsheim P, Moore DR. Observing differences between healthy and unhealthy adolescent romantic relationships: substance abuse and interpersonal process. J Adolesc. 2008 Dec;31(6):795-814. Epub 2007 Nov 26.
  5. Gottman JM: What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1994.
  6. Knee CR, Lonsbary C, Canevello A, Patrick H. Self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2005 Dec;89(6):997-1009.
  7. Laurenceau JP, Troy AB, Carver CS. Two distinct emotional experiences in romantic relationships: effects of perceptions regarding approach of intimacy and avoidance of conflict. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2005 Aug;31(8):1123-33.
  8. Reese-Weber M, Kahn JH. Familial predictors of sibling and romantic-partner conflict resolution: comparing late adolescents from intact and divorced families. J Adolesc. 2005 Aug;28(4):479-93.
  9. Shulman S, Mayes LC, Cohen TH, Swain JE, Leckman JF. Romantic attraction and conflict negotiation among late adolescent and early adult romantic couples. J Adolesc. 2008 Dec;31(6):729-45. Epub 2008 Oct 4.
  10. Robin W. Simon and Anne E. Barrett. Nonmarital Romantic Relationships and Mental Health in Early Adulthood: Does the Association Differ for Women and Men? Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2010:51(2) 168–182 DOI: 10.1177/0022146510372343

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Breakup of romantic relationships in youth

Breakups in non-marital relationships are a source of stress in youth. Breakups are a major reason for self-referral at the Clinic. Stress arises from conflict in daily interaction between the couple and peaks at the time of breakup. The individual’s reaction to breakup of the relationship depends on his or her attachment style.

attachment styles
Reactions to breakup depend on individual attachment style

There are four attachment styles displayed in relationships. These attachment styles are delineated based on the individuals capacity for intimacy (interest in and comfort with closeness and interdependence) and independence (less dependence on partner’s approval, and reduced anxiety about abandonment) (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991).

How do individuals react during a breakup?

Intense reactions occur in those individuals whose partners terminated the relationship, those who were more emotionally involved in the relationship, and those high in attachment anxiety.

Emotionally secure individuals react to romantic breakup with open, empathic communication with their partner. They try social coping strategies and use friends and family as sources of comfort. They are better able to understand their partner’s point of view regarding the breakup, and are less likely to respond in a histrionic or angry fashion. Secure individuals come in for therapy when they are disturbed by their partner’s reaction to the breakup.

Avoidance prone and dismissing individuals rarely display distress or acting out behaviours. They try to avoid all contact with and reminders of the partner. They also successfully use self-reliant coping strategies. Dismissing individuals use self-medication to suppress attachment-related thoughts and feelings, and this is often the reason for which they come seek help at the Clinic.

Anxious insecure individuals coming to us display three primary dysfunctional reactions (Davis and colleagues, 2003).
  • Extreme distress and preoccupation with the lost partner. They neglect work and themselves, waiting all day at the computer desperately hoping to chat with the partner who is trying to terminate the relationship.
  • Acting out - strenuous and exaggerated attempts to reestablish the relationship. This is often combined with angry, hostile, vengeful or violent behavior. These reactions include stalking and defaming the former lover by passing on contact numbers and photographs.
  • Dysfunctional coping and lack of resolution of the loss including self-destructive strategies such as use of drugs or alcohol. .

What happens after the breakup?

Resolution. Breakup leads to changes in the individual’s perception of himself or herself – the self-concept (Sloter and colleagues, 2010). Relationship anxiety is strongly associated with a lost self-concept without the former partner. The partners renegotiate their sense of self outside the boundaries of relationship. Reduced clarity in the self-concept is associated with post-breakup emotional distress. With time most breakups end in resolution of the associated distress. The individual’s idea of the self and the lost attachment figure are reorganised to allow a changed emotional bond and adjustment to changed circumstances.

Integration. Anxious and avoidant persons may to some extent integrate the ex-partner into their lives in an altered form of attachment, such as friendship or working relationships.

Chronic mourning. Those who are higher in anxiety (more emotionally involved) and those who are more attached to the lost partner (did not initiate the breakup) have greater desire for the lost partner.

Replacement. Insecure individuals high in attachment anxiety are more likely to search immediately for a replacement partner. They feel uncomfortable when not in a romantic relationship. Re-bound relationships formed under these desperate conditions are unusually troubled later on.
High attachment anxiety increases the breakup rate

  1. Bartholomew K, Horowitz L M. Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1991: 61, 226-244.
  2. Davis D, Shaver PR, Vernon ML. Physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to breaking up: the roles of gender, age, emotional involvement, and attachment style. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2003 Jul;29(7):871-84.
  3. Slotter EB, Gardner WL, Finkel EJ. Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Feb;36(2):147-60. Epub 2009 Dec 15.