Anxiety and Eating Disorders
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, but they are still often misunderstood. As with eating disorders, the seriousness of anxiety is often dismissed. When a disorder affects so many people, the behaviors and symptoms can become normalized in our culture, but those suffering deserve help just as much as anyone else. Just like eating disorders are often misunderstood as something that people can just “get over,” many people think anxiety is something that you should be able to move past easily, which is not realistic in either case. In this article, we will cover the definition of anxiety disorder, five common myths, and how eating disorders and anxiety are intertwined.
What is Anxiety Disorder?
Anxious feelings like stress and worry are normal reactions while under pressure and typically go away once that situation has passed. For some people, though, feelings of stress or worry occur for no reason or continue long after a stressor is gone. That is the difference between stress and anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a clinical disorder that can be broken down into the following categories:
- Generalized anxiety disorder: undue and excessive tension and upset, even when nothing was done to cause anxiety
- Social anxiety disorder: apprehension and fear around social events
- Panic disorders: severe feelings of fear that occur frequently with a sudden onset
- Phobias: fear of a specific situation or thing (i.e., spiders).
5 Myths About Anxiety
Like any mental condition, including eating disorders, anxiety disorder is shrouded in stigma and shame. This can make it very easy for misconceptions to form and spread. A lot of myths about anxiety come back to the same point: that it’s not a big deal. This can be so detrimental to those suffering. Here are five examples of misperceptions about anxiety disorder:
1. “Severe anxiety only happens to worrywarts”
Anxiety disorder is not a personality issue, it is a medical condition that is experienced by an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults at some time in their lives (National Institute of Mental Health). The exact cause of anxiety is not known, but you may be at a higher risk if you have a family history of anxiety or a history of severe stress. Anyone can have an anxiety disorder, regardless of personality type. Although anxiety is very debilitating to those who suffer from it, it is often not noticeable to people around them. Many people know someone with anxiety, but they just don’t realize it.
2. “Anxiety symptoms just are a mental thing”
Anxiety includes mental symptoms like restlessness, confusion, and fear, but it can manifest in physical symptoms as well. Some examples of physical anxiety symptoms include sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, heart palpitations, and muscle tension. The combination of physical and mental symptoms can make life especially difficult at home and work.
3. “People with anxiety should avoid stressful situations”
Just like eating disorders, certain situations can trigger someone with anxiety disorder. Someone could be triggered, for example, by a phobia, a social situation, a conflict, fears about their health, and more. If someone with anxiety is triggered, they can experience an increase in symptoms and feelings of panic. Stressful situations where someone is triggered can be a very unpleasant experience for someone with anxiety, and while it may seem like a good idea to just avoid these situations, it’s usually not. Stressful scenarios are an inevitable part of life and learning how to cope with them instead of avoiding them is better long-term for their quality of life.
4. “Medication is the only way to manage anxiety”
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, each of which ranges in symptoms and severity. Similar to eating disorder treatment, anxiety treatment options are different depending on what is best for each individual. Treatment strategies for anxiety can include:
- Meditation and relaxation techniques
- Problem-solving strategies
- Individual or group-based strategies
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
5. “Anxiety will go away on its own”
Out of all the misperceptions about anxiety, this is one of the most dangerous. Just like eating disorders, some people think that if they just ignore their anxiety, it will get better. Without professional treatment, oftentimes those with anxiety disorder can experience more and more severe symptoms until it becomes dangerous. Anxiety is a serious medical condition like heart disease or diabetes, and it deserves to be treated with just as much seriousness.
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders
The influence that anxiety and eating disorders have on each other is still not crystal clear, but what is clear is that they are related in some capacity. In a study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry, roughly two-thirds (64%) of the 672 patients with disordered eating had one or more anxiety disorders at some point in their life. In contrast, the authors noted that the percentage of people without an eating disorder that had at some point suffered from an anxiety disorder ranged from 12.7%–30.5%, depending on the study referenced. Anxiety and eating disorders share many risk factors, including biological, social, and psychological conditions, but the question of which one causes the other is still not determined. No matter which disorder may have contributed to the other, everyone deserves to get personalized care that fits their needs. At The Emily Program, our team of medical providers, therapists, dietitians, and psychiatrists brings decades of experience to addressing anxiety and other co-occurring disorders.
If you or a loved one are suffering from anxiety along with an eating disorder, specialized treatment is recommended and The Emily Program can help. Give us a call at 1-888-364-5977 or fill out our online form.