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Eating disorders often go hand-in-hand with mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Research has found that approximately two-thirds of individuals with eating disorders suffered from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, with over forty percent developing an anxiety disorder during childhood and before the onset of the eating disorder .
Eating disorders and co-occurring anxiety often exacerbate the symptoms experienced by both of these mental illnesses, often debilitating a person’s ability to live a quality life. This can interfere with everything from eating normally to engaging socially or attending public functions.
For many individuals who struggled with anxiety prior to the onset of an eating disorder, the eating disorder often serves as a means of managing anxiety. Maladaptive eating behaviors are often inadvertently used to cope with stress and anxiety, such as restricting caloric intake.
Research has also demonstrated that calorie restriction may act to reduce anxious states in patients with anorexia . However, while a person with anorexia may experience a temporary reduction in anxiety levels, the long term restriction of calories and crucial nutrients can put additional stress on the brain and body.
This can worsen feelings of anxiety related to food and body image issues, perpetuating a dangerous cycle with the eating disorder.
Because eating disorders and anxiety are often deeply interconnected, seeking out comprehensive treatment that addresses both mental health issues is essential for recovering and healing. This includes a combination of various psychotherapy techniques that can help an individual learn how to appropriately manage and cope with situations that trigger anxiety and stress.
Some of these techniques include, but are not limited to: cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and complementary therapies. However, cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most widely-used therapies for anxiety disorders, as it has shown to be effective for treating many conditions, including eating disorders .
Applying CBT Skills For Anxiety Management
Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a helpful technique for working through situations that trigger anxiety in eating disorder recovery, such as facing food stressors at a social event.
This technique involves two main components:
1) Examining how negative thoughts contribute to anxiety, and 2) Examining how your reactions and behaviors in situations trigger anxiety. The foundation of CBT is understanding that our thoughts and perceptions about situations influence how we feel, not necessary the external event itself.
For example, in the case of a having food at a social event, there are several possible scenarios and ways in which thoughts would affect emotions:
Thought #1: All of the food options at the party are overwhelming, and I will stress out if I go.
Emotions: Anxiousness, fear
Thought #2: This social event isn’t really my thing. I’d like to stay home rather than going out.
Thought #3: This social event can be a fun opportunity to try new foods and interact with new people.
Emotions: Excited, optimistic
It is easy to see how the same event can lead to different reactions and emotions, depending on the individual. For someone struggling with anxiety at social events involving food, CBT can be helpful in identifying negative thoughts and beliefs and working to correct these patterns of thinking to influence different emotions.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
Part of overcoming fear foods or eating at social events begins with evaluating thoughts that are anxiety-provoking. Working closely with your therapist can help you understand specific strategies for not only challenging negative thoughts but replacing negative thoughts with ones that are more positive and accurate in nature.
You can also learn how to develop affirmations that can calm you in situations that would typically trigger anxiety, like having food at a social event.
Learning how to challenge and overcome negative thoughts is something that can happen gradually with persistence, guidance, and professional support.
If you are struggling with anxiety at social events, your tendency may be to engage in eating disorder behaviors to help you cope with the stress you are feeling; however, this will not allow you to fully heal and move forward.
Work with eating disorder specialists, like a therapist or counselor, to help you challenge the negative thoughts you might be experiencing and successfully overcome any underlying anxiety or fear relating to your eating disorder.
About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Director of Content and Social Media for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.
As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.
References:: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Eating Disorders”, https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/eating-disorders Acessed 3 May 2017
: Science of Eating Disorders, “The Benefits of Starving – Restricting Reduces Anxiety in Anorexia Nervosa”, http://www.scienceofeds.org/2013/09/04/the-benefits-of-starving-part-ii-restricting-reduces-anxiety-in-anorexia-nervosa/ Accessed 3 May 2017
: Therapy for Anxiety Disorders, “Treating Your Anxiety With CBT and Other Therapy Options”, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/therapy-for-anxiety-disorders.htm Accessed 3 May 2017
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 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.
Published on May 10, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 10, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com