Anxiety and binge eating disorder (BED)

If you struggle with anxiety, you’re not alone. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting more than 18% of adults over the age of 18 every year. Unfortunately, many people with anxiety also struggle with binge eating — a combination that can result in major physical and psychological distress. If you struggle with anxiety and binge eating, the first step to get better is to understand how anxiety and binge eating are connected in order to begin to be able to change both, on your way to a healthier life.

Key Points

  1. Binge eating explained. Anxiety as an emotional experience and binge eating as a behavioral response to a negative emotional experience
  2. Exploring the link between perfectionism and anxiety
  3. Self-soothing through binge eating: the biological component
  4. Risk factors for developing (and the likely consequences) of having a binge eating disorder

Anxiety and binge eating disorderBinge eating defined

Binge eating refers to eating a much larger amount of food than would usually be considered reasonable within a short space of time and eating at a much faster pace than usual, with a strong sense of feeling out of control of the amount of food that’s being consumed.

Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a mental illness in which a person uses binge eating behaviors to cope with negative mood states, including anxiety, depression, and other uncomfortable mood experiences.

Check yourself — do you struggle with binge eating?

If you identify with any (or several) of these symptoms, you might have have a binge eating disorder:

  1. Regularly eating a large amount of food than would be considered normal by most standards
  2. Eating very quickly and feeling out of control when you’re eating
  3. Planning to eat in secret, preferring to eat away from other people
  4. Saving up food to binge-eat later
  5. Eating when you’re not hungry
  6. Eating to self-soothe/ manage your emotions
  7. Feeling guilty or ashamed after eating
  8. Purging (vomiting), starving yourself or doing extremely strenuous exercise afterwards to make up for binge-eating

How anxiety and binge eating are related

Anxiety is a negative EMOTIONAL state, either in response to an actual experience, or in anticipation of a negative experience or outcome. Binge eating is a BEHAVIOR that you use to manage negative emotional experiences. Another way of looking at this, is that anxiety is your experience of your inner world, and binge eating is how you manifest an outward behavior in response to emotional distress.

Perfectionism and anxiety

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you’re also more likely to struggle with anxiety. Having perfectionist tendencies puts unreasonably high expectations on yourself which are certainly not sustainable in everyday life. And even if you do somehow maintain such standards, the ultimate cost to your wellbeing and mental health inevitably is anxiety at being unable to sustain unreasonably high standards for an indeterminate period of time.

Empirically supported research has found that the more likely you are to struggle with anxiety, the more likely you are to also exhibit a propensity for negative moods and unhealthy thought patterns. And the more you allow yourself to entertain these unhealthy thought patterns, the more you wear yourself and you defenses down, and set yourself up for failure.

Self-soothing through binge eating: the biological component

Cognitive avoidance theory suggests that binge eating is a behavioral coping strategy in order to escape from a heightened emotional state of distress or discomfort. In this way, when you binge eat, you are effectively finding comfort through the distraction activity of eating. Biologically, humans are hardwired as a species to find comfort in food, and particularly energy-rich, high calorie foods.

If you’ve ever watched a newborn baby when he gets hungry, you’ll notice that the first thing he does is clench his fists, scrunch up his face, and start screaming. This clearly demonstrates the high amount of energy expenditure that’s utilized to demand the urgency of getting his needs met, any time he perceives a threat to his survival. This might be compared to the lengths you might go to to get food whenever you feel threatened.

Watch what happens to the baby and you’ll notice something interesting. As soon as he is fed he instantly uncurls his fists and relaxes, and his feel-good rewards hormones pump through his little body, prompting him to fall asleep into a blissful slumber on a full, satisfied stomach. Can you relate to this after a binge? Interestingly, mother’s milk is actually very sweet and calorie-dense, encouraging babies to want to nurse and ensuring they get sufficient calorie intake to meet their growing needs. We all have a built-in biological desire for sweet and calorie-dense foods that provide comfort whenever we feel threatened.

Risk factors for developing and the likely consequences of binge eating disorder

The risk factors for being more likely to develop a binge-eating disorder include being female, younger in age, having a history of trauma or abuse, feeling helpless or disempowered as a child/adolescent and experiencing significant stress, including social stress as an adult.

Having these risk factors does not absolve you of the responsibility to do what you can to address your binge eating disorder.

Binge eating significantly increases your likelihood of developing obesity, cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep apnea (where you can stop breathing multiple times per night while asleep and need to wear a device while sleeping to keep your airways open). Trust me — you don’t want any of these.

Looking for some good news?

Binge eating has been a coping strategy you’ve developed as a way to manage difficult or uncomfortable experiences and emotions. If you’re distracted with food, you can’t feel the pain, right?

Binge eating also numbs you to the richness that life has to offer. The highs, the lows, the emotional connections forged through healthy relationships, the achievements of challenging yourself to grow and the pleasures of enjoying the world around us, are all available to you when you make the courageous choice to stop relying on binging to numb your experience of life. Yes, you will inevitably come up against uncomfortable emotional experiences, that will be new and which you may not feel equipped to handle. But you don’t have to do it alone. Deciding to be healthy is a choice, and a journey. With the right guidance and support to work through your challenges, you can also avail yourself to a life far richer, fuller and more meaningful than you’ve ever imagined to be possible.

Nutegra can help

Get in touch for a free phone consultation, where we can discuss what treatment will best benefit your health.

References

Rosenbaum, D. L., & White, K. S. (2013). The Role of Anxiety in Binge Eating Behavior: A Critical Examination of Theory and Empirical Literature. Health psychology research, 1(2), e19. https://doi.org/10.4081/hpr.2013.e19