Take your pick: chocolate ice cream, red velvet cheesecake, or peanut M&M's. Prefer salty treats? How about some warm pretzels, greasy fries, and hot Cheetos?

Regardless of your choice, the urge to munch, crunch, chomp, and chew is heightened when feeling stressed. The mindless act of eating offers instant gratification, immediate comfort and something to do with fidgety, restless hands. And given that chocolate is known to boost endorphins and other feel-good hormones, is it any wonder that so many reach for chocolate junk food when feeling stressed, lonely, depressed, or anxious?

On the other side of the spectrum, some people cannot even conceive of eating when their nerves are frayed. The mere thought of food can make them nauseous and queasy. For this type of person who might already be suffering from stomach aches and gastrointestinal issues triggered by persistent ruminations and negative thoughts, the idea of eating only contributes to emotional turmoil.

Stress and Eating Disorders

Experts generally consider anxiety disorders and eating disorders as co-occurring conditions, meaning both illnesses exist simultaneously. The general consensus among experts is that anxiety disorders precede eating disorders.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 65% of people with eating disorders experienced an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes. About 42% of those developed that anxiety condition during childhood, long before their eating disorder emerged.

The underlying principle holds that eating disorders are triggered by worries. The nagging fears lead to control issues, with patients turning to food and weight as a method of controlling and dealing with their anxiety.

A woman may feel unable to control her relentless, disturbing, or scary thoughts, but she can control her eating. She begins a vicious cycle, with her anxiety feeding an eating disorder that can rapidly spiral out of control. Physical symptoms such as malnutrition often result.

While some patients may experience excessive stress without suffering from an eating disorder, a change in eating habits is often a symptom of their anxiety. Such a change may entail an increase in appetite—with gorging and binging, while for others, a lack of interest in food may become prominent.

Prevalent Anxiety Disorders

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have all been associated with the emergence of eating disorders. The relationship may be due to the similarities in character traits between those with certain anxiety conditions and those with eating disorders. Such traits include perfectionism and a tendency to be obsessive.

In fact, OCD is most commonly associated with eating disorders. Sufferers may engage in compulsive rituals related to food to alleviate persistent and relentless obsessions and fears. Women with PTSD are at greater risk of developing bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by episodes of excessive eating followed by purging.

When both anxiety and eating disorders are present, a therapist's treatment plan that addresses both disorders is most likely to result in the best outcome.

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Jerome Sarris, Ph.D.
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