Insecure Attachment and Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Functioning in People With Eating Disorders

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Abstract

Objective

Childhood attachment experiences affect adult emotion regulation and ability to cope with stressors. Therefore, insecure attachment may influence the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and a dysregulation of HPA axis has been found in insecure attached healthy individuals. The effects of attachment on HPA axis activity have never been investigated in eating disorders (EDs). Therefore, we assessed the relationships between insecure attachment and the cortisol awakening response (CAR) in adults with EDs.

Methods

Seventy-eight patients with EDs (43 with anorexia nervosa, 35 with bulimia nervosa) were recruited. They completed the Experience in Close Relationships questionnaire, which provides a rating of two insecure attachment dimensions (anxiety and avoidance) and collected saliva samples to measure the CAR. Differences in the CAR between groups with high and low attachment anxiety and between groups with high and low attachment avoidance were evaluated by repeated measures two-way analysis of variance.

Results

Patients with high attachment anxiety showed a reduced CAR compared with those with low attachment anxiety (F1,76 = 7.31, p = .008). The CAR did not differ between the groups with high and low attachment avoidance (F1,76 = 0.01, p = .93). Patients with high levels of insecure attachment showed a more severe eating-related psychopathology.

Conclusions

Our data show, for the first time, a specific association of the anxious attachment with the HPA axis activity in EDs and suggest a possible role of attachment in the biological vulnerability to stress of adult patients with EDs.

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