Greta Gleissner, LCSW
Feelings of anxiousness from life’s daily events are absolutely normal. We all feel them. However, when feelings of fear and worry take over one’s ability to lead a normal life, such as maintaining a healthy diet, it can lead to an anxiety disorder. Half of all of those suffering from an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder also suffer from an anxiety disorder.1
But it is important to understand the relationship between anxiety and eating disorders. One doesn’t always precede the other.
People diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are often characterized by having overwhelming feelings of worry, a fear about something, or a feeling of not being in, or having, control. Individuals who have excessive worry and anxiety from feelings they have no control can drive them to seek an area of their life where they can exert hyper-control. That area is often associated with food – rules about their weight and body image, and eating and food rules.
These are tangible things a person can control, and seem easier to deal with than the larger, more challenging issues like an unresolved trauma, coping with transitioning to college, or a deep sense of loss or loneliness. In a world where a person can feel out of control, they create an environment where they have a sense of regaining that control in their food habits. The more their outside world seems daunting, out-of-control and scary, the more they may hyper-focus on every nuance of their food rules. It is easy to see how that can lead to disordered eating and ultimately a serious eating disorder.
While it is understandable that an eating disorder could lead to anxiety as one stresses and fears about self-image, gaining weight, or societal and peer pressures, often it is the anxiety outside of the eating disorder which gives birth to the eating disorder itself.
How Anxiety Affects Individuals with Eating Disorders
Anxiety Resulting From an Eating Disorder
Individuals suffering from eating disorders obsess and worry about their weight and self-image. This can be due to a multitude of factors such as peer pressure, societal expectations, or depression. The constant worry about food and how it impacts the body can lead to destructive behaviors such as under-eating, restricting, purging, and binge eating. Individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder may struggle to cope with environmental and social stressors which can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
The individual feeling anxiety can experience episodes of feeling short of breath, uncontrolled shaking, tingling in their fingers and a sense of panic.
Anxiety As a Causal Factor Leading to an Eating Disorder
While anxiety resulting from an eating disorder can absolutely occur, the more common chronology is anxiety, from a sense of helplessness or feeling out-of-control, breeding a desperate desire to control some facet, any facet, of one’s life. That facet is frequently eating and food rules. Why?
- We eat all the time, making it easy to have control over when, where, what and how we eat. “I’m skipping breakfast” gives a person control over a daily facet of their life. “I’m not eating in the cafeteria at work because of the potential of seeing an individual with whom I had a traumatic relationship.” “I’m only eating carrots and celery this week because I need to lose a few pounds.”
The opportunities to have control over so many variables, every day, can be very tempting to someone experiencing an anxiety-filled, out-of-control “outside life”.
- It is one area of our life we can exercise complete control. Other areas of our life do not offer the same opportunity to exercise complete control.
We cannot do it at work; unless you own your business, someone else sets the time, place and tasks to compete. We cannot completely control our social life and relationships; by definition, it takes at least two people to be social and other people can say things, look at you a certain way, be late, change a venue and generally exert some control over every activity you share with them.
- Even after eating, the person struggling with an eating disorder can exert complete control. Want to void yourself of the meal you just ate? You can purge. Want to find solace by yourself in a tub of ice cream on the couch watching infomercials at 3am? Absolutely your choice. Want to restrict eating for 24 hours after a meal with friends? Entirely your option.
While the person feels they “regain” a sense of control in their life by making these controlling decisions, they may be making unhealthy and dangerous nutrition and overall health decisions which can have devastating long-term consequences.
Seeking help for anxiety and eating disorders is the best possible solution to help individuals fully recover from their disorder. Professional treatment, and aftercare treatment can provide the best long-term prognosis for a full and healthy recovery.
Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists (EDRS) (www.eatingdisorderspecialists.com) are highly trained certified eating disorder treatment professionals who travel to an individual’s home, work place or campus to help them establish self-soothing techniques, meal plans, and personalized coping mechanisms. EDRS does this through methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to best treat any eating disorder. To learn more about EDRS, call 866-535-2766 today.
Greta Gleissner, LCSW, is the Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide meal support and coaching program that provides services alongside treatment programs and outpatient providers. EDRS specializes in meal coaching, clinical coaching, in-home cooking, and therapeutic exposure 7 days a week; days, evenings, and weekend.