Eating Disorders and Anxiety

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a broad term depicting the several disorders that can influence nervousness, apprehension, fear, and worrying. Anxiety is a natural human emotion that most individuals experience at various times and a normal response to stressors; however, when anxiety becomes extreme or disproportionate to a situation, it may fall under the categorization of an anxiety disorder. In the majority of cases, anxiety is not the only thing a man or woman suffers with; it is often a co-occurring disorder with an eating disorder or substance abuse. Eating Disorders and Anxiety can create complex issues.

Types of Anxiety

Specific types of anxiety disorders are as follows:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This state entails undue and excessive uneasiness and tension, even when little has been done to provoke anxiety.
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD): This condition is associated with tremendous apprehension concerning social situations.
  • Panic Disorders: Feelings of fear or alarm that occur suddenly and repeatedly without warning
  • Specific phobias: This can include an extreme fear correlated with a specific object or situation

Anxiety Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety can be recognized and experienced with four various categories: physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive effects. Everyone experiences anxiety in a different way or with varying combinations of symptoms. When eating disorders and anxiety appear at the same time, there are many symptoms that can appear. You or your loved one may experience-

Physical effects which include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest Pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Muscle weakness

Emotional Effects include:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Feelings of tension or dread

Behavioral Effects include:

  • Alteration in sleeping patterns
  • Nervous habits
  • Withdrawal from situations

Cognitive Effects include:

  • Persistent thoughts regarding alleged dangers
  • Obsessive thoughts about perceived fears

What Causes Anxiety

Anxiety can be caused by various factors, including environmental, genetics, physiological, neurological, substance abuse, or a combination of these. Examples of some of these factors that can contribute to the development of anxiety are as follows:

  • Traumatic events, such as a history of abuse or death of a loved one
  • Relational stresses
  • Side effects from a medication
  • Withdrawal from an illicit drug
  • Family history of anxiety disorders
  • Hormonal imbalances

Anxiety and its associated disorders are often incapacitating recurring conditions. Anxiety disorders often co-exist with other disorders, such as eating disorders. In fact, the existence of anxiety disorders can frequently lead to the development of an eating disorder, particularly as eating disorders can become a method of coping with anxiety, feelings of stress, and excessive worry/fear.

Connections & Relationship between Eating Disorders and Anxiety

Often, it is the case that anxiety precedes an eating disorder. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control the aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise, indirectly gives the suffer a false sense of control, which can temporarily relieve symptoms experienced due to anxiety. Now the man or woman has a dual diagnosis of an eating disorder and anxiety. These learned behaviors however, can inadvertently lead to the development of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Treatment of Eating Disorders and Anxiety

For these reasons, it is crucial that anxiety is treated in conjunction with treatment of an eating disorder; particularly as the two are closely related and common issues are addressed to heal from the underlying factors associated with both disorders. Comprehensive treatment considerations for an individual suffering from both anxiety and an eating disorder are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, support groups, and some medications that can be helpful in managing anxiety and separating feelings from food. Learning healthier coping mechanisms for managing anxiety are also the focus of Eating Disorders and Anxiety treatment.

Articles on Eating Disorders and Anxiety

  • Healing from an eating disorder involves analyzing all aspects of one’s life under the clear lens of recovery. There may be several parts of your life that you once engaged in can no longer be a part of your future should you choose recovery from an eating disorder.
  • Recently, it occurred to me that unless you have sat with these women, men, and children and looked at their faces and into their frightened eyes, and heard the tightness of their voices that you may not know that it is not a behavior that is killing them, it is isolation.
  • Anxiety, that miserable, tense feeling that something is imminently wrong and something bad is about to happen. It is painful and distracting to endure this feeling for all of us. But, for those who endure an unending assault of this worrisome state – life can be extremely difficult.

Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 17, 2012

Page last updated: August 17, 2012
Published on, Eating Disorder Resources Website