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Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Anxiety and eating disorders have been shown to go hand-in-hand.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is best described as an alarm bell going off. It’s your body telling you something isn’t right, perhaps as a response to a stressful situation.

Many people experience feelings of anxiety. It’s considered a disorder when a person feels these feelings where there is no actual danger, the anxiety is triggered from a non-threatening situation, and when these feelings begin to get in the way of daily tasks.

Symptoms of anxiety can include;

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Increased heart rate

  • Feeling faint/dizzy

  • Nausea

These symptoms, as well as others, would be very persistent for someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is the most common anxiety disorder.

Other anxiety disorders include;

  • Panic disorder

    • Individuals with panic disorder experience unexpected bouts of panic, sudden moments of fear and extreme stress

    • Panic disorder can sometimes cause shortness of breath, a pounding or racing heart, sweating, shaking, etc.

    • Panic disorder can occur at any point and for some panic attacks are frequent. For others they may happen once or twice a year

    • People with panic disorder often try to avoid their next attack which may cause them to steer clear of certain events, places, or behaviours they feel may trigger one

  • Social Anxiety Disorder

    • Social anxiety disorder causes a person to feel fearful of social situations due to the idea of being judged or perceived by others

    • This disorder may include blushing, sweating, shaking, feeling self-conscious, difficulty being around people they don’t know, etc.

    • People with this disorder typically feel that they must avoid social situations and in more intense cases may even avoid their jobs, school, etc.

  • Phobia-related disorders

    • Phobias are extreme fears or aversions to certain objects or situations

    • One example; specific phobias (simple phobias) which include things like flying, heights, specific animals, injections, blood

    • People with phobia disorders fear those specific objects or situations so much that it gets in the way of their daily lives and creates such an intense fear that does not match the actual danger of the object or situation

Anxiety related to ED’s

According to an article by Here to Help BC, anxiety in connection to eating disorders can look/feel like;

  • Fear and worry about gaining weight

    • Common for individuals with anorexia and bulimia nervosa

  • Sensitive to physical sensations

    • More common in those with bulimia nervosa or feeding disorders like ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) an example of said physical sensations could be suddenly feeling nauseous after a meal which could cause worry about possibly vomiting. 

  • Perfectionism

    • Trying to make appearance or body look a certain way that they may believe is ‘perfect’ and feeling intense feelings of panic or worry otherwise

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) the percentage of comorbidity (the presence of two or more conditions) of eating disorders with an anxiety disorder is as follows;

  • Anorexia nervosa: 47.9%

  • Bulimia nervosa: 80.6%

  • Binge-eating disorder: 65.1%

In most cases the anxiety disorder was previously diagnosed prior to the eating disorder, researchers are unsure if it is directly a cause or if it contributes to causing it, but it is definitely considered a risk factor according to this study.  

The comorbidity of these two disorders can make it much harder for an individual to go through treatment and to avoid relapsing. 

It is therefore important that if you feel that you or your loved one may be facing an eating disorder and possibly an anxiety disorder, bring it up to your practitioner (family doctor, psychologist, etc.). They must be made aware of a possible co-occurring disorder because this will change the process of treatment and both disorders will need to be simultaneously treated.

Some possible treatments for someone with an eating disorder and co-occurring disorders are;

  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

    • Encourages the individual to stay mindful and present and learn to guide your attention away from negative thoughts and focus on healing 

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

    • A form of talk therapy that teaches how to restructure emotions and thoughts in order to have healthier thoughts and actions - a structured and goal-oriented therapy

  • Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT)

    • Derived from CBT, DBT is geared more towards intense emotions, suicidal ideation, etc. DBT also works with mindfulness, cbt techniques and emotional regulation skills to help with behavioural patterns.

  • Emotional-focused therapy (EFT)

    • Emotional experiences and reactions are the main focus - building emotional awareness, learning to accept and process emotions instead of avoiding them

  • Exposure therapy

    • Where a psychologist safely exposes the patient to things they fear or avoid

For more support and information please feel free to check out these links:

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