When it comes to feeling anxiety, please know that you are not alone! In fact, humans need it to survive because anxiety is our internal alarm system. Similar to all our emotions, anxiety is communicating information to us and while this can be lifesaving, it can also be a false alarm. As a way to slow down, try to understand what your experience of anxiety is by non-judgmentally observing the situations (i.e. holidays with family), automatic thoughts (i.e. “I am ugly.”), feelings (i.e. sad, nervous), sensations (i.e. sweating), and behaviors (i.e. restricting food).
By understanding the patterns, you can learn to respond in a more empowering and self-compassionate manner. I often get the question, “How do I get rid of anxiety?” As mentioned, you need anxiety to survive and while not always experienced this way, it is possible to decrease the intensity of anxiety. Try changing your language and mindset – instead of “getting rid” of anxiety, how can you make friends with anxiety? How can you demonstrate care, compassion, patience, and validation for anxiety and ultimately, yourself?
Dr. Russ Harris, an Acceptance and Commitment Psychotherapist and Life Coach, uses the metaphor of quick sand. Anxiety is similar to quick sand, the more you struggle in it, reject it, or suppress it, the quicker you sink. But if you can learn how to observe your experience of anxiety and how to co-exist with anxiety, you can slow down, and make more effective decisions in response. This may be challenging, but with practice it is possible.
Remember, all feelings are needed and if you suppress a more challenging feeling, such as anxiety, you will take away from the more desirable feelings, such as happiness. A balance is central.
You are also not alone when it comes to using food and your body as a coping tool for anxiety. Eating disorders are about obtaining a sense of control, especially when faced with uncertainty. Wait, what are people actually trying to control if not weight- Feelings? Self-worth? Desirability? Avoidance of thinking about childhood neglect? Punishment? Uncomfortable thoughts? YES!
An individual is provided with a false sense of control via eating disorder behaviors. When body image is a factor, this is also a false sense of self-worth. Whether the focus is on food, weight, and/or appearance, both are an escape or an avoidance of anxiety. However, all are perceived by the person as a true sense of control because food and one’s body is something a person can tangibly control and therefore use this to manage anxiety. This becomes a short-term fix and a vicious cycle. While we are only focusing on anxiety in this article, there are numerous experiences associated and “the function” of an eating disorder that is unique to each individual.
A common misunderstanding of eating disorders is that people “just want to lose weight.” While weight is a component, it is only the surface. Western society has coupled being thin with more desirable, in addition to, misrepresenting what an eating disorder encompasses. Eating disorders hold a different purpose for each person and requires an individualized approach, as there are various types and reasons people restrict, avoid, purge, are selective/rigid, and/or overeat. Since eating disorders are complex, it is invalidating to say, “Why don’t you just eat?” Food, or lack thereof, is simply the “tool” used to cope with or tolerate anxiety, pain, etc. If you are trying to support someone, this question will be ineffective, even if you are coming from the best intentions.
What to do with anxiety and eating disorder
- Treatment team. Organizing a treatment team is a crucial step to helping someone diagnosed with an eating disorder or disordered eating. An accurate diagnosis is central. There are various diagnosis’s and finding professionals who are knowledgeable with eating disorders is crucial, otherwise symptoms can be misunderstood and misdiagnosed. Treatment team consists of the following:
- Get a medical examination by a pediatrician or primary care physician. What makes an eating disorder have the highest death rate among psychiatric illnesses is that the ENTIRE body is negatively impacted (i.e. heart, brain, kidneys, etc.) and your body will begin to shut down. Even if you “look” and “feel fine,” medical complications can be silent. Since you are no longer getting the necessary nutrients to operate, this also makes you more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, depression, etc. Based on the results of a medical evaluation, other professionals may be needed depending on the type of eating disorder, such as gastroenterologist or endocrinologist.
- Meet with a psychologist or social worker. Self-reflecting, raising awareness, and developing other coping tools for anxiety is important. A therapist will help an individual explore the function of an eating disorder, while building a healthier sense of self. It is central to identify habits, warning signs, and triggers. On your own, begin tracking your patterns throughout the day. Ask yourself these questions: “What situations are anxiety provoking? Do I eat passed the point of discomfort? When I have little control over a situation, do I turn to food or avoid certain foods? Do I eat certain foods only if I plan to work out after? Have I used supplements, laxatives, diet pills, and/or diuretics to help regulate my weight? Have I restricted my food intake throughout the day in order to eat something less healthy later? Am I more anxious around certain people? Do I eat when feeling sad, mad, frustrated, etc.? Do I associate popularity with a certain body type?” As conveyed before, while anxiety is inevitable, your control is taking care of yourself and managing your responses. Additionally, other professionals may be needed, such as a family therapist.
- Meet with a dietician. A dietician will help individuals make more balanced food choices while bolstering their awareness about eating behaviors. It is important for a person to distinguish between what is typical appetite loss or over eating as a result of anxiety and what has now manifested as intentional. Also, eating behaviors can make hunger cues inaccurate, which affects your ability to clearly assess your hunger level. Although not limited to, sessions can include meal planning, misperceptions of food types (i.e. carbs), meal tracking, meal dining, grocery shopping, etc.
- Meet with a psychiatrist. Depending on the type of eating disorder, medication can help decrease the power of certain urges or cognitions allowing more space for processing and effective decision making. Also, depression and anxiety will most likely overlap with an eating disorder and medication can help ease symptoms temporarily. When someone is malnourished, the brain is not functioning to its full potential. It becomes difficult for individuals to make rational decisions and medication can be a useful tool. Medication can help improve mood, while psychotherapy further provides the understanding and tools for continued symptom management.