Binge eating and anxiety go together more often than you might think. People with binge eating disorder (BED) experience recurring episodes of binging. People with BED eat large amounts of food and feel a loss of control over eating. People with anxiety disorders experience frequent worries or fear about everyday situations. They may have panic attacks, which are intense and concentrated spells of anxiety.

It is estimated that two to five percent of Americans suffer from BED. This is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of American adults.

According to a 2009 study, close to 75 percent of people with BED experienced at least one other psychiatric disorder in their lifetime. Almost 40 percent of people struggled with anxiety.

Anxiety and Overeating

Anxiety can come in different forms. Generalized anxiety refers to persistent worrying about any life situation. You can also experience anxiety around a specific situation, such as social events. People suffering from anxiety attacks experience physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain.

Those suffering from disordered eating cope with stress and intense feelings by overeating in order to soothe themselves.
James M. Greenblatt, MD

Research has yet to determine the specific cause of anxiety or BED, but it is thought both are caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • genetics
  • environment
  • physiology
  • neurology

Some researchers believe that binging may temporarily soothe feelings of anxiety for some people. One study found desires to binge increased with stress, anxiety, and cortisol response in participants with BED.

The Role of Cortisol

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that could affect your appetite. It is sometimes called the “stress hormone.” That is because your cortisol levels rise when you are under stress.

There is limited research on the connection between cortisol levels and BED. There is evidence suggesting anxiety and stress can trigger emotional eating, however. This may lead to binge eating, says James M. Greenblatt M.D, chief medical officer and vice president of medical services at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Massachusetts.

What You Can Do

There are various things that can help you control your anxiety and binging. The most important thing is to get help.

Anxiety and BED are different conditions. Treating one won’t necessarily treat the other, but they both need to be treated at the same time. A multidisciplinary treatment team can be your best bet. This team works together to tailor the treatment to your specific needs and make sure you get the right treatment for you.

Psychotherapy and medication are commonly used to treat anxiety, says Greenblatt. When your anxiety is treated appropriately, binge eating symptoms may decrease.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which has shown to be effective in treating BED, may also be helpful in managing anxiety. This type of treatment focuses on identifying and understanding both your thought processes and your behavior patterns so you can change them.

Knowing what triggers your anxiety can help you manage situations that might make such feelings worse. For example, if you know dieting books can exacerbate your anxiety, throw them out. Make your living area a safe and positive place that promotes a healthy body image.

Working to combat internal cues and dialogue may also benefit people suffering from anxiety. This can be done by practicing mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques. “We have to be willing to believe that changing our minds can change our lives,” says Melissa Groman, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders and author of “Better Is Not So Far Away.”

If you have BED or anxiety, speak with your doctor. They can work with you to develop an appropriate treatment plan.