Exploring the Link Between Eating Disorders and Mental Health



By Linsey Maughan
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Elizabeth Dougherty’s research on eating disorders is getting noticed. The clinical psychology Ph.D. student saw her work recognized this year through a Rising Star Award from the UC San Diego Eating Disorder Center for Treatment and Research, as well as with a student research grant from the Academy of Eating Disorders and a Student Research Award honorable mention from the Association of Psychological Science.

The Rising Star Award allowed Dougherty the opportunity to present as part of a panel at the UC San Diego center’s annual conference, while the student research grant provided funding for her dissertation research, the subject of which Dougherty feels is critical to explore.

“My dissertation research is investigating whether stress promotes excessive habitual control over bulimic behaviors and whether this maintains symptoms in bulimia nervosa spectrum disorders,” Dougherty says. “The goal of this line of research is to provide information about mechanisms that may be maintaining eating disorder symptoms that are not currently being targeted in existing treatments. A considerable portion of individuals with eating disorders do not recover from these conditions, despite receiving our best empirically supported treatments. Given the elevated risk of mortality associated with these conditions, it is crucial that we find ways to improve treatment.”

A native of Syracuse, New York, Dougherty is especially interested in understanding the relationship between eating disorders and mental health.

“Eating disorders are highly co-morbid with other psychiatric conditions,” Dougherty says. “Witnessing this in my own clinical work made me curious about what accounts for this. This motivated me to conduct research to identify shared risk factors for eating disorders and other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety disorders. This information may inform the development of effective transdiagnostic treatments for eating disorders and co-morbid conditions.”

Dougherty chose to study at Illinois Tech because she wanted to work with Associate Professor of Psychology Alissa Haedt-Matt, and now works as a graduate research assistant in Haedt-Matt’s Eating Behaviors Research Laboratory. In addition, Dougherty holds a second graduate research assistant position in the Body Image and Eating Behaviors research lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led by Sylvia Herbozo, an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and surgery at UIC.

“My research focuses on identifying factors that contribute to the maintenance of eating disorder symptoms and the co-occurrence between eating disorders and anxiety disorders,” Dougherty says. “I also worked as a graduate research assistant [in Haedt-Matt’s lab] on a study investigating momentary predictors of dysregulated eating in adolescents [who are] overweight and [obese].”

Dougherty’s dissertation study is now underway and involves a clinical sample of women who are participating remotely. While the study was designed to be remote even prior to the pandemic, Dougherty says the stress of the pandemic has exasperated the eating disorders of some of her participants. 

“Participants have definitely reported that their symptoms have worsened as a result of the pandemic,” she says.

Beyond earning her Ph.D. and becoming a clinical psychologist, Dougherty says her long-term goal is to become an independent clinical investigator and to continue studying the connections between eating disorders and mental health.

 “The clients that I have treated in therapy over the years inspire me with their resilience and courage,” Dougherty says. “They inspire me to be best the clinician I can be and conduct research that has a meaningful impact on individuals who suffer from mental illness.”

Photo: Elizabeth Dougherty