Hope in Eating Disorder Treatment: How Treating Co-Occurring Disorders Helps Patients With Recovery

Middle-aged woman stressing over her eating disorder

Elvin Semrad, MD, a famous psychoanalyst, would speak about how important it is for patients to “know what they are up against.” This is especially important in the care and treatment of patients with eating disorders. When patients are treated for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the eating disorder is often the tip of the iceberg, and a thorough evaluation often reveals co-occurring psychiatric disorders.

A recent national survey found that patients with anorexia nervosa had high rates of coexisting mood disorders (42.1%), anxiety disorders (47.9%), substance use disorders (27%), and impulse control disorder (30.8%). This same survey found that patients with bulimia nervosa had even higher rates of co-occurring psychiatric disorders: mood (70.7%), anxiety (80.6%), substance use (36.8%), and impulse control (63.8%).

At first, diagnosing co-occurring conditions might seem disheartening, as this might make an already serious eating disorder diagnosis suddenly seem more complicated. However, hope begins with integrated treatment. When patients understand what they are up against—how each disorder worsens the other—and receive treatment for all their conditions, recovery can move forward.

Eating Disorders and Co-Occurring Disorders

Eating disorders, for example, worsen depression and vice versa. The malnutrition of anorexia nervosa and erratic eating of bulimia nervosa has a negative effect on the brain, worsening mood, impairing sleep, concentration, and energy.

Eating disorders behaviors cause social isolation and are time-consuming. Patients also suffer from distressing negative body image, ruminations about food and body, and shame and stigma that worsen their self-esteem, further lowering their mood. Depression saps motivation for recovery, makes patients feel hopeless, and keeps them stuck. In the case of anorexia nervosa, weight loss can be a slow suicide.

Woman concerned about Eating Disorders and Co-Occurring disordersDespite the worsened clinical picture of these combined disorders, treating both the eating disorder and the depression improves both conditions significantly. With treatment, patients can stabilize their eating disorders, restore weight, establish regular eating, stop purging or exercising, and work on better managing the psychological symptoms of their eating disorder.

When patients are on track with eating, the multitude of evidence-based treatments for depression (medications, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation) work better, and patients have more energy and psychological space to find the meaning and enjoyment in life that is integral to recovery from depression.

Similarly, an eating disorder and a substance use disorder feed off each other. Alcohol has calories, and patients restrict to make up for drinking. Drugs and alcohol disinhibit and are associated with bingeing, which is followed by compensatory restricting or purging.

The lack of a clear head due to the use of drugs and alcohol makes it hard to stay on track with eating disorder recovery. However, even two weeks of sobriety brings back a clear head, and the awareness of the association of substance use and eating disorder symptoms can allow patients more choice in their recovery.

Trauma, sometimes undiagnosed, often underlies substance use disorders and eating disorders. The constellation of symptoms from trauma can include shame and a negative impact on self-esteem (patients feel the trauma is their fault), a negative impact on self-care, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Patients often drink, take drugs, or use eating disorder behaviors to cope with their trauma symptoms. For example, restricting can provide a sense of control, can be numbing, can be soothing. Bingeing and purging can be an emotional outlet.

Trauma treatment starts with trauma education, including helping patients understand how their old ways of coping (using substances and eating disorder symptoms) can be replaced with more adaptive coping mechanisms.

Finding Hope

Young woman working out with a big smileAt first, patients might feel overwhelmed when they are diagnosed with multiple disorders. A college student once said, “I thought I was just partying. Now you are telling me I have a substance use problem on top of my eating disorder!”

But the truth is that patients know what they are up against deep down inside as they live and experience their struggles every day. Making these struggles more explicit, naming them, diagnosing them, explaining how different disorders interact, and most importantly, providing treatment for all problems moves patients into a more complete recovery.

This is a hopeful process. In the words of a patient, “I am not glad that I got anorexia, but I am glad I came to treatment to get help for everything else that was going on.”


[1] Hudson JI, Hiripi E, Pope HG Jr, Kessler RC. The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb 1;61(3):348-58.PMID: 16815322. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1892232/

About the Sponsor:

McLean Klarman BannerThe Klarman Eating Disorders Center (KEDC) at McLean Hospital provides state-of-the-art treatment for young women ages 16 to 26. Our programs specialize in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The KEDC also specializes in treating coexisting mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. We engage parents, siblings, and other loved ones in therapy, education, and close communication to help realize the common goal of a healthy recovery.

About the Author:

Esther Dechant, MD

Esther Dechant, MD, received her medical degree from Harvard Medical School. She completed the residency program in psychiatry at Cambridge Hospital and a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. Board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in psychiatry with subspecialty certification in child and adolescent psychiatry, Dr. Dechant is experienced in child, adolescent, and adult medication evaluation and management and psychotherapy.

Dr. Dechant currently serves as the medical director for the Klarman Eating Disorders Center and holds an appointment as an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Her private practice specializes in child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy, as well as child and adolescent medication evaluation and management.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed & Approved on December 3, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published December 3, 2019, on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.