I'm Anxious and I Have an Eating Disorder: How Do I Get Help?

It’s common for people struggling with eating disorders to have a co-occurring mental health disorder. Anxiety disorders are particularly common when an eating disorder is present and can make treatment more complex.

Why do Anxiety & Eating Disorders Co-Occur?

Mental health issues are rarely straightforward. Often individuals seeking treatment for one diagnosis find they are unearthing other complicated problems. For example, an individual seeking recovery from alcohol may discover that they were self-medicating for underlying depression. Now that the drinking has stopped, the depression comes back full force.

This phenomenon is called co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis, and it is more common than many realize. Over 9 million Americans are estimated to have a dual diagnosis, which can range from mental health issues to substance abuse issues to developmental disabilities and more.

While co-occurring disorders are often associated with substance abuse and mental health, increasing research is being conducted on the prevalence of co-occurring mental health disorders. One article published in the journal Nature about the science of co-occurring mental health disorders states, “Few patients fit into each neat set of criteria. Instead, people often have a mix of symptoms from different disorders. Even if someone has a fairly clear diagnosis of depression, they often have symptoms of another disorder such as anxiety.”

Diagnosed with Anxiety & An Eating Disorder

A common difficulty in seeking mental health support is that many mental health problems do not happen in isolation. Co-occurring disorders are prevalent, with many people exhibiting the symptoms of multiple mental health disorders, substance use disorders, or physical ailments.

Often it can be tricky to determine a diagnosis for somebody who has multiple mental health issues at the same time. Unlike a broken bone or a cracked rib with easily identifiable characteristics that a medical professional can quickly start to treat, mental health issues can be elusive and difficult to isolate.

Anxiety and eating disorders often have overlapping symptoms, further complicating the issue. Classic anxiety symptoms, like racing thoughts, tension, sleep issues, digestive issues, and heart palpitations, are also frequent symptoms of common eating disorders.

If the individual is unaware of the nature of co-occurring conditions or doesn’t know to seek help for both, it can seem like the traditional treatment model isn’t working. The eating may be addressed, for example, but the debilitating anxiety or obsessive thought pattern remains, leading to a relapse or even an entirely new set of issues.

Facts About Anxiety & Eating Disorders

One 2013 study found that about 65% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder also had an anxiety disorder. Another study showed similarly that women with eating disorders had lifetime anxiety disorders (OCD, generalized anxiety, social phobia, etc.) at a higher rate than the average population and often beginning in childhood.

According to the studies, the correlation between anxiety disorders and eating disorders may be genetic. Or the correlation may be related to how anxiety disorders manifest themselves, such as a strong need for control, social anxiety about appearance, and obsessive thinking regarding weight and diet.

Many will find that their anxiety fuels their disordered eating, and vice versa. It can be an exceptionally frustrating situation for those who seek treatment for their eating disorders hoping that the anxiety will decrease, and it doesn’t. It’s essential to find a program that is equipped to address both the eating disorder and the anxiety.

Handling Anxiety & Eating Stressors

If you feel like you’re struggling with both an eating and an anxiety disorder, there are actionable steps you can take toward wellness and recovery. One of the best things a person can do is seek out a treatment program specializing in co-occurring disorders. For those who suspect they may have dual diagnoses, it’s crucial to find a practitioner or treatment program with curricula and support for both.

For many, the dual diagnosis can bring a sense of relief. If traditional treatment options hadn’t been working for an individual, the knowledge of (and subsequent treatment of) co-occurring disorders could bring a sense of hope and possibility. The treatment for a dual diagnosis will often be more comprehensive and have additional supports in place than a standard treatment plan.

Another great step toward recovery is education and community. Finding support groups, reading books and articles, and seeking out recovery-focused media like the Mental Note Podcast are great steps.

You Can Recover

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a wonderful opportunity for reflection and education. Here are a few great resources on the topic of anxiety, eating disorders, and recovery.

If you feel like you’re struggling with disordered eating, anxiety, or both, seek support today.