Anorexia nervosa, like all eating disorders, is both a mental and physical condition. Anorexia and mental health are closely linked. Many people with anorexia also have one or more mental health conditions. Treating these issues (referred to in literature and research as comorbidities) is essential to recovering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders.
Let’s take a closer look at anorexia and mental health, common mental health conditions that occur with anorexia, and treatment.
Anxiety is a common feeling. Many people might feel anxious before starting a new job and taking a new test. Those with an anxiety disorder experience that feeling much more frequently, and it’s not necessarily tied to any particular event or activity. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, a significant subset of people with eating disorders show signs of having an anxiety disorder, including two-thirds of those with anorexia.
For many people with an eating disorder, anxiety developed before the eating disorder did. It’s not critical to know which developed first to receive treatment, though. Anxiety, along with other mental health disorders, can be treated at the same time and in conjunction with eating disorders.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder. People with this disorder feel anxious or worried most of the time and it interferes with social interactions, school, or work. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms may include:
- Feeling restless.
- Getting tired easily.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Experiencing problems falling or staying asleep.
- Panic disorder. Those with panic disorder have recurrent panic attacks. A panic attack can be frightening, including symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating, and shortness of breath.
- Social anxiety disorder. With social anxiety disorder, people may feel afraid of social or performance-oriented situations, which can lead to avoiding social situations altogether.
For people with anorexia, the anxiety may be around food, body image, and body size, but it can manifest in other areas as well. Therapy is an essential part of treatment for people with anorexia and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful for both.
Depression is a common mental health disorder that often appears in people with anorexia. Depression can cause difficulties with daily activities, such as going to school, going to work, and eating. Some common types of depression include persistent depressive disorder, postpartum depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Bipolar disorder also has a depressive component, but it’s also accompanied by euphoric or irritable moods, according to the NIMH.
Some common signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sadness.
- A lack of energy.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Changes in appetite.
- Changes in sleep patterns.
Depression is often treated with medications, though it can take time to find the right medication and the right dose. Therapy is helpful for many as well. Treating underlying depression is an essential part of recovering from eating disorders, including anorexia.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Studies have also found that some people with anorexia also have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Although many associate PTSD with military service (and rightfully so), PTSD can occur from any event that was frightening, extremely stressful, or dangerous.
Our bodies do everything they can to protect us. When we experience a stressful event, our bodies have a fight or flight response, which is designed to help us defend ourselves. With PTSD, we react with that fight-or-flight response even when we are no longer in danger.
Those with PTSD may experience flashbacks, feel tense or easily startled, lose interest in activities, and may avoid situations that trigger a response.
As with other mental health issues, PTSD is treated with a combination of approaches. Medication may help, and talk therapy is often helpful as well.
Moving Beyond the Stigma
Our culture stigmatizes those of us with mental health issues. Treating the body is perfectly acceptable, but treating the mind sometimes isn’t. Although acceptance has come a long way, many of us feel guilt or shame around mental health challenges. We may feel like we should just “get over” our mental health issues, but that’s not how they work.
When it comes to anorexia and mental health, there is nothing wrong with seeking help. It’s essential to recovery. It’s hard for many of us to admit we need help, though. Often the best first step is to talk with someone we trust, whether it’s a teacher, a parent, a partner, a friend, or even a helpline like the one offered by the National Eating Disorder Association.
Often, anorexia and other eating disorders mask underlying mental health issues. Treating those underlying issues are essential to recovery. There’s no simple solution for solving anorexia and mental health problems, but there is help and hope. Places like the Center for Discovery offer treatment and support, with experts who understand the relationship between anorexia and mental health.