Anxiety + Disordered Eating
n clinical practice we see that eating disorders are almost always accompanied by an anxiety disorder (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an eating disorder present without an anxiety disorder). It’s really difficult to understand what’s causing what or what actually came first – but the bottom line is that there is a very intricate and complicated relationship between an anxiety disorder and an eating disorder and they each tend to make each other worse.
Regardless if you have symptoms of bingeing + purging or restricting, your body will often be in a state of nutrient deprivation – restriction from lack of nutrient intake and bingeing and purging because nutrients are lost through purging. On a purely physiological level any amount of nutrient depletion will cause feelings of anxiety.
Hypoglycemia is the clinical name for abnormally low glucose levels in the blood – a symptom of hypoglycemia is anxiety. It is impossible to have low blood sugar and feel calm, from an evolutionary perspective that wouldn’t make sense for the body. If the body detects that it is in a state of depletion it needs to trigger you to seek out the missing nutrients so it can function, hence the anxiety. Symptoms of magnesium, b vitamin, zinc or protein deficiency also cause anxiety. If your body is replenished with the nutrients it needs there is no guarantee that your anxiety will go away, in all honesty it probably won’t (because anxiety is caused by much more than physical causes) BUT the nutrient depletion is definitely exacerbating the symptoms of anxiety that you are experiencing.
Disordered eating symptoms are often used to palliate feelings of anxiety and part of what makes eating disorders so difficult to recover from initially is because they actually really work at soothing uncomfortable emotions in the moment, even if only for a moment. As anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder knows though, the degree to which it can numb emotions decreases more and more over time and eventually even in the height of symptoms the anxiety remains as bad as ever. Over time, the symptoms of an eating disorder take on a life of their own and cause even more anxiety than was initially present before symptoms were even used. And that’s the trap of an eating disorder.
Without using symptoms for palliation, anxiety will be incredibly high but the symptoms themselves will worsen anxiety. And the nutrient depletion that results from the symptoms will only further exacerbate the problem. So it’s a bit of a lose-lose. The bottom line is: you have to face the seemingly unbearable feelings of anxiety that will be present throughout recovery. In time, as you separate yourself from the eating disorder your anxiety will improve and I think that’s the only way.