On bells, saliva, and abdominal pain or discomfort: Early aversive visceral conditioning and vulnerability for anorexia nervosa.
Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are common in anorexia nervosa (AN), can predate illness onset, complicate renourishment, and persist after recovery. We explore how, through processes of aversive visceral conditioning, early GI pain and discomfort may increase vulnerability to AN in some individuals. Processes include enhanced preoccupation with the gut resulting from aversive visceral memories and disruptions in the typical acquisition of self-attunement when children learn to map and interpret interoceptive sensations and develop adaptive actions. We question whether a fear of weight gain, in some cases, may be an epiphenomenon of the recapitulation of actual or perceived GI symptoms that is especially relevant during puberty, especially in girls. This conceptualization has immediate clinical implications and offers ideas for future research. We propose that GI discomfort associated with renourishment may reignite prior aversive visceral experiences. We encourage development of a formulation that organizes the individual's current experience of the body with respect to these prior aversive experiences. Our conceptualization underscores the importance of assessment of GI experiences in individuals with AN; the examination of dietary strategies that minimize GI symptoms and enhance renourishment efficacy; and strategies that attempt to alter this aversive visceral conditioning by mapping sensations to meanings and adaptive actions.
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