Behavioral Health

Anxiety and Eating Disorders: How They’re Connected

Discover the link between anxiety and eating disorders, their impact on health, effective treatment, and coping strategies for those in need.

Anxiety and eating disorders are two serious health issues that often go hand in hand. 

To best help those living with anxiety and eating disorders, we need to understand how the two are related. This connection helps us figure out treatment approaches and coping strategies. After all, when it comes to our behavioral health, we can never be too informed.

Below, we’ll explore the link between anxiety and eating disorders, look at the types of eating disorders linked to anxiety, and discuss their impact on health. 

We’ll also cover ways to prevent these problems, different treatment options, and helpful coping strategies!

Understanding Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that can be very strong. This fear can cause other symptoms, such as nervousness, a fast heartbeat, sweating, and restlessness. People with anxiety often worry a lot about things that might happen.

On the other hand, eating disorders are serious conditions related to eating habits. There are many different types of eating disorders, ranging from eating far too little to eating far too much. Either way, the effects of eating disorders can cause many health problems for those who live with them. 

Both of these conditions are common — for example, just over 19% of adults in the US suffer from some anxiety. Meanwhile, around 9% of people in the US suffer from an eating disorder. 

The Connection Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Anxiety and eating disorders are often linked, sharing many common risk factors and symptoms. Understanding how these conditions are connected can help in finding better ways to treat and manage them. 

Let's explore the factors that contribute to both anxiety and eating disorders, how they affect each other, and the role of biology in these conditions.

Shared Risk Factors

Several factors contribute to both anxiety and eating disorders. Some people have a genetic predisposition — in other words, they are more likely to develop these conditions because of their family history. 

Trauma is also a factor — for example, experiencing abuse or a major loss can increase the risk. 

Personality traits like perfectionism can make someone more likely to develop anxiety and eating disorders as well, as they may set very high standards for themselves and feel extreme pressure to meet them.

Psychological Factors

Anxiety and eating disorders often make each other worse. 

For example, someone with low self-esteem may develop an eating disorder as they try to gain control over their life. This can lead to increased anxiety about their appearance and eating habits. On the other hand, having an eating disorder may cause a lot of stress and worry, making anxiety symptoms worse.

Biological Factors

Brain chemistry and hormonal imbalances play a big role in both anxiety and eating disorders. 

Certain chemicals in the brain, like serotonin, help regulate mood and appetite. If these chemicals are imbalanced, it can lead to both anxiety and eating problems. 

Hormonal changes, such as those during puberty or due to stress, can also affect how someone feels and eats.

What Types of Eating Disorders are Linked to Anxiety?

Unfortunately, people living with an eating disorder often experience high levels of stress and worry, which can worsen their condition. 

Let's take a closer look at the main types of eating disorders and how they are linked to anxiety:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where people eat very little because they are terrified of gaining weight. They may see themselves as overweight even when they are dangerously thin. 

Anxiety is often present in people with anorexia nervosa. They may constantly worry about food, calories, and their body image. This intense fear and worry can drive their restrictive eating behaviors and make the disorder even harder to overcome.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa involves eating a large amount of food in a short time (bingeing), followed by behaviors to avoid weight gain, like vomiting or excessive exercise (purging). 

Anxiety is closely linked to bulimia — people living with this disorder often feel out of control during binge episodes and use purging as a way to manage their anxiety about gaining weight. The cycle of bingeing and purging can then lead to increased anxiety and stress when left unmanaged.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is when someone eats a large amount of food in a short period, often feeling unable to stop. Unlike bulimia, they do not purge afterward. 

Anxiety can trigger these binge eating episodes, as people may use food to cope with their stress, sadness, or anxiety. After bingeing, they often feel ashamed and more anxious, creating a harmful cycle that is hard to break.

Impact on Physical and Mental Health

Anxiety and eating disorders, whether on their own or together, present many challenges for the health of a person living with them.

Here’s how they impact various aspects of a person’s health:

Physical Consequences

Eating disorders combined with anxiety can lead to numerous physical health issues: 

  • Malnutrition is common, as the body does not get the nutrients it needs to function properly. This can result in extreme weight loss, weakness, and a weakened immune system. 
  • Heart problems, such as irregular heartbeats and heart failure, are also risks due to the strain placed on the body. 
  • Additionally, gastrointestinal issues like constipation, bloating, and stomach pain are frequent because of irregular eating patterns and behaviors like purging.

Psychological Effects

The mental health impacts of eating disorders are also very important to consider:

  • Depression is often present, with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in daily activities. 
  • Many people with eating disorders also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where they experience intrusive thoughts and engage in repetitive behaviors related to food and body image. 
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are unfortunately common as well, highlighting the critical need for mental health support.

Social Impact

Eating disorders can greatly affect social interactions and relationships: 

  • Individuals may withdraw from friends and family, avoiding social situations that involve food. This isolation can lead to strained relationships and a loss of social support. 
  • Daily functioning can also be impaired, so focusing on work, school, or other responsibilities is difficult. 
  • The social impact of eating disorders can create a cycle of loneliness and further exacerbate anxiety and depression.

Prevention and Early Intervention for Anxiety and Eating Disorders

Early detection and intervention are crucial in managing anxiety and eating disorders effectively. By recognizing the signs and understanding the role of support systems, we can help those affected before the conditions worsen.

Early Signs and Symptoms

Identifying the early warning signs of anxiety and eating disorders is essential for timely intervention. 

For anxiety, symptoms might include: 

  • Constant worrying 
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches 

For eating disorders, warning signs can be: 

  • Drastic changes in eating habits, 
  • Preoccupation with weight and body shape
  • Extreme dieting 
  • Frequent visits to the bathroom after meals  

Recognizing these signs early (especially for children’s behavioral health) can lead to quicker diagnosis and treatment, preventing more severe health issues.

Role of Family and Friends

Family and friends play a vital role in supporting individuals with anxiety and eating disorders: 

  • Creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment can encourage open communication and help those struggling to feel understood and valued. Loved ones can assist by being attentive to changes in behavior, offering emotional support, and encouraging professional help. 
  • Their involvement is crucial in helping individuals feel less isolated and more motivated to seek and adhere to treatment.

Importance of Early Treatment

Early intervention can significantly improve outcomes for those with anxiety and eating disorders: 

  • The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of recovery and the reduced risk of long-term health complications. 
  • Early treatment can include therapy, medical care, and nutritional counseling, which work together to address these condition’s mental and physical aspects. 
  • Early action gives individuals  a better chance of overcoming their struggles and leading healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Treatment Approaches

So, how can we treat these two debilitating conditions?

For both anxiety and eating disorders, there are many different treatment options available — this is important since no two people are the same.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is talk therapy that helps people change negative thought patterns and behaviors. It is highly effective in treating both anxiety and eating disorders. 

Through CBT, individuals learn to identify and challenge harmful thoughts, develop healthier ways of thinking, and practice new behaviors. This therapy can reduce anxiety levels and promote healthier eating habits, making it a cornerstone of treatment for these conditions.


Medications can also play a key role in treating anxiety and eating disorders. 

Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are commonly prescribed to help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. Anti-anxiety drugs, like benzodiazepines, can provide short-term relief from severe anxiety. 

For eating disorders, certain medications can help reduce binge eating and purging behaviors. Individuals must work closely with their healthcare providers to find the right medication and dosage.

Nutritional Counseling

Nutritional counseling is essential for addressing the dietary aspects of eating disorders. Working with a nutritionist helps individuals develop healthy eating habits, understand their nutritional needs, and address deficiencies. 

Nutritionists can provide meal plans and support that promote balanced eating, which is crucial for physical recovery and mental well-being.

Integrative Therapies

Integrative therapies like yoga, acupuncture, and mindfulness, can complement traditional treatments. 

Yoga can help reduce stress and improve body awareness. Acupuncture may help alleviate anxiety and promote relaxation. 

Mindfulness practices, like meditation, teach individuals to stay present and manage their thoughts and emotions more effectively. By addressing the mind-body connection, these therapies can enhance overall treatment outcomes.

Coping Strategies and Self-Help

Managing anxiety and eating disorders requires ongoing effort and the use of effective coping strategies. 

Here are some self-help methods that can support recovery and promote well-being. 

While self-help is important, it’s often not a substitute for help from medical professionals. 

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness practices involve paying attention to the present moment without judgment. This can help reduce anxiety by calming the mind and focusing on the here and now. 

Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and mindful eating can promote healthier eating behaviors and reduce stress. Mindfulness helps individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, allowing them to manage their reactions more effectively.

Stress Management Techniques

Managing stress is crucial for those dealing with anxiety and eating disorders — unfortunately, it’s often easier said than done.

The good news is that various techniques can help, including regular exercise, which releases endorphins that improve mood. 

On the other hand, relaxation exercises, such as progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery, can reduce tension and anxiety. 

Those living with anxiety and eating disorders should also engage in hobbies and activities that bring joy and relaxation — this helps manage stress and provides a healthy distraction from negative thoughts!

Relying on a Support Network

Having a strong support network is essential for managing anxiety and eating disorders. 

Friends, family, and support groups can provide emotional support, encouragement, and understanding, helping people feel less isolated and more connected. 

Support groups, in-person or online, offer a space to share experiences and learn from others facing similar challenges. Leaning on a support network can make a significant difference in coping with these conditions and promoting recovery.

Sevita’s Companies Help Those With Behavioral Health Struggles

No matter what you’re going through, managing your behavioral health is key to thriving and living a fulfilling life. 

Sevita’s companies can help those who need it. With highly specialized services, our programs help people heal in the ways they need to — including those dealing with anxiety and eating disorders.

Explore our behavioral health services to learn more about how Sevita’s companies can support you or someone you care about.

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