Stress has the ability to cause stomach aches, sweaty palms, and a pounding heart, and it plays a huge part in both physical and mental health. Stress has been linked to the development and the relapse of disordered eating, including conditions like bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, and poor coping skills, difficulty problem solving, and high levels of perceived stress are often found in Individuals requiring eating disorder therapy. It's important to understand the connection between stress, anxiety, and eating disorders in order to formulate the best possible eating disorder support and treatment for Individuals on the journey towards recovery.
Individuals with Eating Disorders are Often More Sensitive to Stress
According to a qualitative study done by the Australia and New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders, individuals who display the symptoms of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders may be more sensitive and vulnerable to stress. This may be true for several different reasons, including interpersonal sensitivities; deficiency in coping skills; and extremely high standards and expectations for themselves. Individuals are often highly sensitive to the reactions and opinions of others and more likely to use external standards to judge themselves.
Stress May Be Both a Cause and Effect of Eating Disorders
Both stress and anxiety may be an underlying factor in the development of eating disorders, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 65% of Individuals with eating disorders have experienced an anxiety disorder. A large percentage of those with anxiety disorders developed them long before the emergence of their eating disorder. Stress is not only a big factor in the development of eating disorders, but it may intensify disordered eating symptoms and even negatively impact recovery.
For many individuals who display the symptoms of disordered eating, stress is also an effect of the eating disorder. Eating disorders cause both physical stress and psychological stress. The fixation on weight, food, and the body can be exhausting, and as it overtakes every part of a patient's life, it often raises stress levels. Unfortunately, the increase in stress has the potential to then make the disorder worse.
The Relationships Between Stress and Disordered Eating
The relationship between stress and disordered eating is cyclical in nature and multiple mechanisms are involved in this relationship. For many Individuals, disordered eating becomes a stress management technique that offers a sense of control. It is a coping strategy often used to deal with stress.
During recovery, stress has the ability to interfere, and some Individuals may display stress avoidance behaviors, avoiding the extra stress that often comes with going through treatment. In some cases, stress may even reduce the motivation Individuals have to recover or cause physical symptoms, such as loss of appetite or nausea.
Can Stress-Reduction Techniques Improve the Treatment Results?
Since stress is an underlying factor for disordered eating, may be caused by disordered eating, and it has the potential to interfere with treatment, addressing stress and implementing stress reduction techniques while teaching healthy coping mechanisms may improve treatment results. For example, mindfulness meditation is well known for its ability to help relieve stress, and studies show that it’s a logical and helpful treatment choice for Individuals with eating disorders. Along with stress, most Individuals with eating disorders share similar issues, such as issues with harsh self-criticism, control, and perfection. Mindfulness meditation-based treatment can offer excellent results, helping Individuals reduce stress and come to a relationship with self that is kinder, more authentic, and gentler.
Studies have assessed treatments designed to reduce worry and rumination, both of which may be problems for excessively stressed Individuals, and results have suggested that cognitive behavioral interventions and mindfulness-based interventions may prove helpful for the reduction of both worry and rumination. Other stress reduction activities suggested by the National Institute of Mental Health, such as yoga, regular exercise, and tai chi may also be useful for Individuals working through eating disorder therapy.
The role of stress and anxiety in the development and maintenance of eating disorders cannot be ignored, and by understanding the mechanisms connecting them, it's possible to come up with better treatment options that address the whole person to facilitate complete recovery. The combination of evidence-based treatment with stress-reducing techniques and mindfulness practices offers Individuals the ability to address stress, learn how to deal with it, and work towards ending the cycle of stress and disordered eating.