Stress Leads to Binge Eating and Drinking in College Women

The factors that put someone at risk for eating problems or alcohol problems are many. For young adult women, unique conditions work together to increase those risks. Problem drinking and binge eating are significant concerns for this age group. Women who develop these problems at a young age may do so as a coping mechanism. And although the consequences may be few at first, the pattern of using food or alcohol as a strategy to escape from negative feelings can set the stage for more severe addictions, compulsions, and negative relationships with food, alcohol, or other substances. Therefore, Anna M. Bardone-Cone of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led a recent study examining what factors put college-aged women most at risk for negative eating and alcohol use.

For her study, Bardone-Cone evaluated 406 college women for levels of self-directed perfectionism and social perfectionism. She also looked at stress as a predictor of binging. She examined interpersonal, body image, and academic stress, and assessed how these interacted with perfectionism to increase binging when the women felt negative. She found that women with high levels of academic stress and social perfectionism were most likely to be emotional eaters, using food as a method of escaping negative feelings. Social perfectionism was also linked to all three types of stress in women who used alcohol as way of coping with negative affect.

Bardone-Cone believes that young college women are under an inordinate amount of stress. When they feel they have to be at their optimal best academically, personally, physically, and relationally, the additional pressure of thinking they have to be socially perfect may just be too much, causing them to resort to alcohol as a means of coping. For instance, if a woman does not feel great about herself, even though body image was not directly related to alcohol or food binging, she may still turn to alcohol or food in order to decrease her negative feelings about not being perfect in society’s eyes. When other stressors are added to the mix, such as relational and body image stress, alcohol appeared to be the method of choice for numbing negative feelings. Bardone-Cone hopes that her findings will motivate clinicians to address social perfectionism and academic goals as triggers for maladaptive eating and alcohol patterns. “This approach could potentially aid in preventing the development of the more serious problems of binge eating, bulimia nervosa, and problem drinking,” said Bardone-Cone.

Bardone-Cone, Anna M., Lisa M. Brownstone, M.K. Higgins, Megan B. Harney, and Ellen E. Fitzsimmons-Craft. Predicting difficulties controlling overeating and drinking when experiencing negative affect in undergraduate women. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 31.10 (2012): 1051-073. Print.

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  • Jeanette


    January 13th, 2013 at 4:40 AM

    I can see how the stress could get to some young women, because I know that throughout all ends of the spectrum many of us cope with our stress issues via eating. Some of us overeat, some not at at all, so it goes without saying that there would be those women who would turn to bingeing as a way of coping too. I can see that. I have never really understood the whole issue with eating in this manner in a way of being perfect or striving for perfection I guess I should say. There is nothing at all perfect about htis kind of behavior, and you would think that college women would in many ways be smart enough to recognize that.

  • martha q

    martha q

    January 14th, 2013 at 4:14 AM

    I don’t think that too many women are aware of the pressures that they will face when they go away to school, and then when that hits them they are forced to look for ways that they can feel in control. For many of them the one way that they know they can control things is through what they eay. I know that for those of you who have never needed this kind of control over something it might seem odd, but having been there I know that feeling of losing control but knowing that this is one thing that I could be in control of and that wouldn’t cause any harm to anyone else, not thinking too much about the physical and psychological damage that I was doing to me.

  • els


    January 14th, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    Martha q, I could not agree more. When I went away to college, I had no idea the stress I would face. I was an excellent student and received A’s in most of my course. I had a college professor write in a recommendation for me that I was the best student she ever had. I graduated at the top of my class. But, all of the pressure I put on myself definitely took its toll. I went to an academically demanding school and the people that went there were generally very preppy and very rich. So, they were all wrapped in very neat, pretty, and thin packaging. I wanted to be like them so badly. But, when I was in my third year ( I also graduated in three years and spent a semester doing foreign study unrelated to my major), I stared overeating which quickly turned to binge eating. I had no earthly idea why I was doing this and why I was so out of control. I didn’t put the binge eating with a response to stress until much later in my life. Now, at 39, I can see it very clearly, but it still plagues me to a degree. I wish I could go back to the day I first overate due to stress…and I remember it clearly-the night before I came home from foreign study.

  • Porter


    January 14th, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Going away to college is very difficult, especially for young women. I think most should seek professional counseling before a problem arises.

  • pierre


    January 14th, 2013 at 4:50 PM

    I would want to know that wherever I choose to send my girls to school that it is a campus well aware of the unique struggles faced by young college women and that they are equipped with the programs that can better help them face these challenges.

    I sure don’t want them going somewhere where the administration has their heads buried in the sand and where they refuse to see these things as the problems and critical issues that they are. I want them to understand that for many young women that this is a big deal and a serious problem not to be overlooked.

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