The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Anxiety

Beaachside - Eating Disorder Anxiety

Eating disorders are often disregarded as a “real” illness in the eyes of some parts of the medical community. In some cases, it is believed disordered eating manifests and exerts control over an individual through personal choice. Anxiety disorders and eating disorders can, and frequently do, occur simultaneously. This is known as a co-occurring disorder. To ensure the highest chance of recovery when this happens, treatment for anxiety must coincide with treatment for disordered eating. This is best accomplished at a treatment center skilled in treating co-occurring mental health conditions like Beachside Teen Treatment Center in Malibu, California.

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease. Anxiety is a specific reaction to a stressful event, typically characterized by feelings of apprehension or dread in situations that would not generally be considered threatening. Feelings of anxiety typically persist even after the problem has passed. In even more severe cases, anxious feelings can escalate into an anxiety disorder, which is the most common mental health issue in the United States.

Anxiety disorders are separate and distinct from ordinary, everyday anxiety, and they alter how one processes emotions and how they behave. Symptoms of anxiety can manifest in both physical and emotional ways. Without proper treatment such as that provided at Beachside in Malibu, California, someone struggling with anxiety will eventually do whatever is necessary to avoid situations that trigger anxious emotions. This may mean avoiding going to work, school, family events, or other situations which may trigger (or worsen) anxiety symptoms.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are classified in several ways in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition). The ones most are usually familiar with include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Panic Disorder

Panic disorders are characterized by a sudden, intense fear that brings about a panic attack. During a panic attack, one may break out in a sweat, experience chest pains, or have a rapid and accelerated heartbeat. Sometimes during a panic attack, a person may feel as though they are choking or even having a heart attack.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorders are also sometimes known as social phobias. These occur when a person feels overwhelming worry and self-consciousness regarding everyday situations in social settings. They will obsessively worry about others judging them or have unrealistic fears about being embarrassed or ridiculed while in public.

Specific Phobias

Specific phobias are when someone feels an intense fear of a particular object or situation, such as spiders or water. This fear goes beyond what a person would usually feel when exposed to this kind of stimulus. Phobias may cause someone to avoid certain situations or environments where they could come face to face with their fear.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety occurs when someone feels anxious or scared when a loved one leaves. Many people relate this to children (and pets), but it can occur in people of all ages. When someone has separation anxiety, they will become very anxious and fearful when someone they care for is out of sight and consistently worry that something terrible may happen to them while they’re gone.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are illnesses in which one experiences severe disturbances in their eating and behaviors. Someone who struggles with an eating disorder typically becomes preoccupied with food, body image, and body weight. Eating disorders affect millions of people at any given time, and nearly 30 million American’s will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid addiction, resulting in approximately one death every 42 minutes.

Common Types of Eating Disorders

Many eating disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and personality factors; however, mental health conditions can contribute to the development or worsening of eating disorders.  There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by the individual wanting to stay obsessively thin. Common symptoms often seen in those with anorexia include low body weight (although individuals with anorexia will often think they are overweight), dehydration, low blood pressure, anxiety, irregular menstruation and delayed puberty, brittle hair and nails, and headache.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder where a person binges on food and then purges the food from their body. This typically occurs through self-induced vomiting. In addition to binging and purging, common symptoms of bulimia include food aversion, hunger, anxiety, mood swings, bad breath, dental hygiene problems, esophageal inflammation, frequent weight fluctuations, irregular menstruation, and low self-esteem.

Binge Eating Disorder

While this sounds similar to bulimia, binge eating disorder is a different form of mental illness and a separate diagnosis. Binge eating disorder refers to someone eating an excessive amount of food in a short period, such as over a couple of hours. Unlike bulimia, there is no purging involved after the food is consumed. To be classified as a binge eating disorder, this form of excessive food intake must happen at least once per week for three months before a formal diagnosis is possible.

Eating disorders frequently occur together with other mental health conditions such as anxiety, panic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Many also experience new or worsening alcohol and drug abuse problems. Without treatment tailored explicitly to treating these disorders’ co-occurring symptoms, significant medical problems like malnutrition, heart problems, and other potentially fatal conditions can result. However, with proper mental health treatment at a care facility like Beachside, those with eating disorders can resume healthier eating habits and attain better psychological and physical health.

The Connection Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common co-occurring disorders with eating disorders. A recent study published by the National Eating Disorders Association indicates as many as 56% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder will also have a co-occurring anxiety disorder. Between 50 and 80% of people with bulimia nervosa and 55-65% of people with binge eating disorder are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder are also commonly diagnosed with eating disorders.

Unfortunately, mental health professionals and other medical community members struggle to identify precisely how anxiety and eating disorders are related. To date, research has not provided a definitive reason for the connection; however, research is ongoing.

One primary theory centers around control. With mental health conditions such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, there is often a loss of some sense of control. Consequently, those struggling with one of these disorders may seek out something in their lives they can control. In this case, that “something” is food. Restricting food (as in anorexia) confers a sense of control.

When someone with anxiety focuses their mind on something, they can do well, such as restrict calories; it makes them feel better for a short time. With binge eating disorder and bulimia, overindulging in food may result in a temporary reduction in control; however, it may also provide a small window of comfort due to the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain after eating. High fat or high carb foods help counteract the brain’s negative feelings during moments of anxiety. People with bulimia may eventually regain a sense of control through purging. Many (as many as two-thirds) of those who struggle with a lack of control due to various mental health conditions turn to eating behaviors as it is something they feel they can control.

Treating the Dangers of Co-Occurring Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Coping mechanisms for any addiction or behavior can sometimes turn dangerous. Eating disorders can lead to many significant and adverse health conditions. In some cases, disordered eating can result in irreversible illness and death. Unfortunately, those who struggle with anxiety may use eating behaviors to distract from their symptoms and not receive help for either condition. When treating co-occurring disorders, it is essential for both conditions to be treated simultaneously. Treatment often begins by addressing any medical concerns resulting from disordered eating. For further treatment to be successful, one’s physical health must be addressed immediately. For example, treatment might initially involve altering your diet and ensuring you were properly hydrated and that your blood sugar stable before moving on with other therapies to address anxiety. Once any dietary changes have been made, it is possible to move on to other therapeutic measures to help address the root causes of the disordered eating and, during treatment, learn and practice safer ways to manage anxiety.

Two common therapeutic models have proven to be effective in treating both anxiety and eating disorders simultaneously: cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT and acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT. Both therapeutic models focus on encouraging you to change patterns of behavior and thinking. The goal of treatment is to help one focus on examining and reevaluating negative thought patterns, which often lead to negative or harmful thoughts and behaviors. In addition to individual or group therapy sessions, medical monitoring, and dietary changes, medications may also be used in some situations. In these cases, antianxiety medications may be prescribed to help reduce the effects of anxiety symptoms to further treatment progress. However, medications are commonly used for brief periods and not considered a long-term solution.

When someone struggles with co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and an eating disorder, it is essential to treat the conditions simultaneously. What an effort is made to treat one over the other, achieving full recovery is difficult. If you or a loved one are experience anxiety and an eating disorder, please reach out to Beachside in Malibu today. Let our caring and compassionate staff help you take the first steps towards a healthy future.