The Effects of Stress on Eating Disorders

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According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa, “at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the US, and every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.” Eating disorders result from a combination of biological and environmental factors, one of those being stress. According to the Australia & New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders, “stress is consistently linked to the development, maintenance, and relapse of eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders often display poorer coping skills and problem-solving abilities, as well as higher levels of perceived stress.” Nonetheless, stress affects everyone to a certain extent; but for individuals suffering with eating disorders, social and environmental factors can elevate stress and lead to detrimental behavioral and mental patterns. Thus, it is imprint for individuals with eating disorders to learn how to manage stress in order to replace impulsive eating habits—food restriction, purging, or binging—with productive outlets. Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction Treatment works with individuals to help them navigate productive coping outlets.

Stress and eating disorders form a negative feedback loop: Stress triggers eating disorder behavior; eating disorder behavior triggers stress. In other words, the compulsive behaviors, which characterize eating disorders, often serve as a means to cope with stress, but in turn, they result in heightened stress. At Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction treatment, we recognize that stress is both a cause and a consequence of eating disorders. For example, for some individuals, bing-eating is a way to cope with stress during overwhelming situations. The same idea goes for individuals who restrict their eating in order to gain a sense of control during times in which they may feel they don’t have any. The compulsion (binge, purge, restriction) may temporarily lower the individual’s stress; however, these behaviors ultimately result in elevated long-term stress, lowered self-esteem, guilt, and shame.

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Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction Treatment recognizes that college students are particularly susceptible to developing eating disorders. According to an article by The Walden Center for Education and Research, “40% of female college students have eating disorders and 91% of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting.” Stress can be exacerbated by the transition from home to college, feelings of loneliness and homesickness, changes in diet, increased independence, academic pressure, challenging coursework, and the presence of other individuals with eating disorders.

In addition to potentially triggering and perpetuating an eating disorder, increased stress can reduce the effectiveness of eating disorder treatment. Therefore, it is important for eating disorder patients to learn how to effectively manage their stress. Some relaxation techniques include meditation, guided imagery, yoga, tai chi, controlled breathing, listening to music, reading a good book, progressive muscle relaxation, playing with a pet, taking a nap, massage therapy, aromatherapy, reducing caffeine intake, writing, walking, gum chewing, laughter, and connection with friends and family. All of these techniques can easily be incorporated int on individual’s daily routine. Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction Treatment works with clients in order to help them implement such activities into their day-to-day lives.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition of The American Psychiatric Association breaks eating disorders into the below categories. It is imprint to note that body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is commonly, but not always, associated with eating disorders.

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Restriction of caloric intake that leads to significantly low body weight.

  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: Eating disturbance where an individual is unable to meet their nutritional or energy needs.

  • Binge Eating Disorder: Recurrent episodes of binge eating—Eating an abnormal amount of food than a person typically would in a two hour time period with a sense of lack of control during that time.

  • Bulimia Nervosa: Binge eating followed by fasting, self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or use of laxatives.

  • Pica: Eating of substances with no nutritional value for a period of at least one month.

  • Rumination Disorder: Repeated regurgitation of food—re-chewing, re-swallowing, or spitting out food—for at least one month.

  • Other Feeding or Eating Disorder: When an individual meets some, but not all, of the criteria for one of the above eating disorders.

  • Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder: When an individual’s disorderly eating interferes with their daily life but does not meet the criteria for any of the above disorders.

Ian Wickramasekera developed the High Risk Model of Threat Perception (HRMTP) to explain the effects of stress on disorders, such as that of disorderly eating. In essence, HRMTP identifies a variety of predisposing factors which amplify the probability that triggering variables will generate psychological or somatic symptoms unless the impact of the triggers are buffered by coping skills and social support. For more information on HRMTP, check out the Handbook of Mind-Body Medicine for Primary Care.

Recent studies have also examined the correlation between eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). For example, in the cases of both bulimia and anorexia, obsessions result in elevated anxiety which can only be reduced by ritualistic compulsions. For more information regarding the relationship between eating disorders and OCD, visit:

Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction Treatment has dedicated Recovery Support Specialists who work in tandem with psychiatrists, nutritionists, and eating disorder specialists to help eating disorder clients in all stages of recovery—from initiation to maintenance—build a treatment plan that best suits their strengths and needs. For more information on our services, please give us a call at (805)698-1256.