The Connection Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Every year, 40 million adults throughout the United States live with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are by far the most common mental illness in the country, affecting more than 18% of the population. These include conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

Anxiety disorders develop from a combination of factors including brain chemistry, personality, life events, and genetics. While anxiety is a problem on its own, it is often connected to other conditions. Along with being the most common mental illness, they also have a high rate of comorbidity with disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or eating disorders.

The connection between anxiety and eating disorders is significant. Disordered eating behaviors are a common symptom of anxiety. Although not everyone who has anxiety will develop an eating disorder, the chances of developing the condition are higher.

Research has repeatedly drawn connections between anxiety disorders and the three main eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. What encourages this connection between anxiety and eating disorders? How does treatment for comorbid conditions differ?

Anxiety and Eating Disorders Statistics

According to research from the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders have the highest rate of comorbidity with eating disorders. 47.9% of adults with anorexia nervosa, 80.6% of adults with bulimia nervosa, and 65.1% of adults with binge-eating disorder have at least one co-occurring anxiety disorder.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common co-occurring anxiety disorders. These aren’t just people struggling with some extra stress from time to time. Those with co-occurring anxiety and eating disorders experience significant distress and disruption to their lives.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affects an estimated 69% of people with anorexia nervosa. Social anxiety disorder affects an estimated 34%. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects between 24 and 31% of those with anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder. GAD affects an additional 8% of people with binge eating disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder co-occurs in about 25% of those with any eating disorder.

Why are there such high rates of comorbidity between these conditions? What causes the connection between anxiety and eating disorders?

The Connection Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are progressive conditions. They often start in an intentional and controlled manner as a way to feel a sense of control. Once a habit forms, though, it’s easy to lose control over abnormal eating and exercise behaviors. It becomes more difficult to overcome these behaviors as time passes and they become increasingly compulsive.

Where does the connection between anxiety and eating disorders lie? Do people start with an anxiety disorder that progresses into an eating disorder, or do disordered eating behaviors cause anxiety?

The majority of eating disorders seem to start during adolescence when young people begin recognizing differences in physical appearance. One study showed that anxiety regarding social appearance was a predictor for developing symptoms of an eating disorder. Anxieties and fears of social rejection or ostracization are notable factors that contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviors. Malnutrition can exacerbate anxiety as well.

Anxiety also contributes to disordered eating in those who consume food for comfort. People who turn to food as a way to cope with anxiety, discomfort, or stress have a higher risk of developing binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa. Consuming large amounts of food offers short-term relief from anxiety but only exacerbates the problem as time passes.

So what is the solution for comorbid anxiety and eating disorders? Since anxiety seems to be a contributing factor for developing an eating disorder, should treatment start by addressing the anxiety disorder? What does an effective treatment program for these co-occurring disorders consist of?

Treating Anxiety and Eating Disorders

The connection between anxiety and eating disorders is undeniable. It’s impossible to consider treating one without treating the other. Anxiety stemming from self-image and societal pressure contributes to disordered eating behaviors. An eating disorder provides a sense of control when everything else feels out of control.

Since eating disorders seem to stem from anxiety you may think treatment starts with addressing anxiety. But clinicians cannot address one disorder without also considering the other. They’re so closely connected that it’s impossible to separate the two. Effective anxiety and eating disorder treatment must treat both conditions simultaneously.

Eating disorder treatment facilities are well-versed in the intricacies of treating comorbid anxiety and eating disorders. Clinicians understand the complex relationship between the conditions and are equipped to work with these individuals.

Effective treatment involves a comprehensive continuum of care, usually starting with inpatient treatment and ending with an outpatient program. Facilities like Toledo Center offer this range of care to provide the most appropriate level of care for each person who seeks help.

Located in Ohio, Toledo Center is the premier eating disorder treatment program in the area. We center our individualized programs around evidence-based methods that lead to lasting recovery. You’ll learn coping skills needed to manage and eventually eliminate symptoms so you can live a life free from your eating disorder.

To learn more about the programs we offer, fill out a contact form or give us a call today!

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