While some mental illnesses may present themselves independently under certain scenarios, it’s important to acknowledge that some are interconnected as the side effects of one illness result in symptoms of another. The overlapping of various mental illnesses can especially be seen in the connection between anxiety and eating disorders, whether that be bulimia, anorexia, or other forms of disordered eating.
Before we begin to break down this web, we have to define anxiety, at least in the context of this situation. Many studies conducted have used the cognitive approach to anxiety, which is the thought that anxiety is the designation of specific stimuli as an excessive threat, no matter how small or innocent it may seem (Pallister & Waller, 2007). Consequently, a bias against the stimuli is formed, evoking negative thoughts and fear from the individual. In order to deal with the effects of this bias, people may utilize different strategies of coping mechanisms.
When it comes to generalized anxiety disorder, simple procrastination of tasks, overthinking, and organizing every little detail are one of the many mechanisms demonstrated. In terms of disordered eating, however, overeating or undereating is also a very common tactic. One study of 271 subjects found that 71% of individuals with an eating disorder had a comorbidity, a presence of two or more diseases at the same time, with anxiety (Godart et al., 2006). Another study found that the percentage of comorbidity was 64%, supporting the fact that there is an evident relationship between anxiety and eating disorders (Godart et al., 2006).
Using food to relieve stress from stressful situations isn’t just seen in people with mental illnesses. Comfort eating, or emotional eating, is common within the general population too. The most common scenarios that come to mind are stuffing yourself with junk food after a bad breakup, or increasing your sugar or caffeine intake to pull all nighters (Pells, 2019). With that frame of reference in mind, it’s easy to see how food can be a diversion from the problems being faced, and how it might offer a brief respite from the tension and stress of dealing with it all.
However, the act of associating eating with stress relief would have more consequences than usual for those with a comorbidity for anxiety and disordered eating. The presence of these illnesses would mean that the stressor is most likely to affect the individual at a stable, frequent basis, which could encourage coping behaviors such as comfort eating. However, the dependence on these behaviors can eventually cause a continuous cycle of more harm than good without the realization or acknowledgement of it. Just like the consequences of any other mental illness, these behaviors need to be acknowledged and treated with the help of a professional who can validate the individual’s progress and guide them towards healing.
Godart, N., Berthoz, S., Perdereau, F., & Jeammet, P. (2006). Comorbidity of anxiety with eating disorders and OCD. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(2), 326; author reply 327–326; author reply 329. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.163.2.327
Pallister, E., & Waller, G. (2008). Anxiety in the eating disorders: Understanding the overlap. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(3), 366–386. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2007.07.001
Pells, J. (2019, April 16). Anxiety and overeating – What’s the overlap? Eating Disorder Hope. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/co-occurring- dual-diagnosis/anxiety/anxiety-overeating-whats-the-overlap