It’s not uncommon for mental health problems to compound eating disorders. Eating disorders are often triggered by the desire to control one’s weight, body image, or food intake. But they can also be triggered by mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. When a person suffers from two different conditions at once, it becomes difficult for them to determine which of their symptoms are caused by what. And this is especially true if the signs of the first condition have been alleviated—but not cured—by treatment.
This article explores how people with an eating disorder may develop another mental illness and why it’s so hard for them to cure both even after receiving professional help.
Mental Illnesses That Interfere With Eating Disorder Recovery
There are five types of eating disorders that have been linked to co-occurring mental health problems:
- Anorexia nervosa: Depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder
- Bulimia nervosa: Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), OCD
- Binge-eating disorder: Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): Pervasive developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): Depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia
There are several reasons why mental illness may interfere with an individual’s ability to recover from an eating disorder. One reason is that the person’s current state of mind makes it difficult for them to see things clearly. They may not be aware of their own thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. This kind of distorted perception is associated with the following mental illnesses:
- Depression: Symptoms include fatigue, loss of interest in activities, feelings of guilt, or low self-worth.
- Anxiety: Symptoms include excessive worry and nervousness, fearfulness, physical tension, and sleep disturbances.
- Bipolar disorder: Symptoms include extreme mood swings, from periods of high energy and elation to deep depression.
- Schizophrenia: Symptoms vary but can include delusions (false beliefs), hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), disorganized thinking, and a lack of motivation.
When Combined Together
When a person has both an eating disorder and another mental illness, it can be difficult for them to differentiate between their symptoms. This is because the two conditions often share common symptoms, such as extreme emotions, intrusive thoughts, and dietary changes. And in some cases, the eating disorder may actually be caused by the mental illness. For example, a study in the journal Transcultural Psychiatry found that sexually abused individuals were more likely to develop eating disorders.
In some cases, treatment of one mental illness may automatically improve another condition. But this isn’t always the case. And unfortunately, it’s still common for people with an eating disorder to receive a diagnosis for a co-occurring mental illness.
Why Is It So Hard to Recover?
Despite receiving professional help, it can be tough for people with an eating disorder and another mental illness to fully recover. This is because the two conditions are often intertwined and affect different areas of their life. For example, the eating disorder may interfere with their ability to go to school or work. Meanwhile, their mental illness may cause underlying emotional problems that make it difficult for them to improve their eating disorder.
In some cases, the person’s coping mechanisms for one condition may be directly related to another condition. For example, a study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that adolescents with major depression were more likely to develop a binge-eating disorder. This may be because these adolescents use food to cope with their emotions.
Or the person may use their eating disorder to cope with their mental illness. For example, someone with anorexia nervosa may feel that they have more control over their lives if they’re thin. This is known as self-regulation. Still, you must check in with a recovery center for anorexia patients since the professionals can help identify the underlying mental health issues that cause this disorder.
It may also be difficult for someone with an eating disorder and another mental illness to recover because they’re afraid of returning symptoms. One study found that women who have both binge-eating disorder and PTSD are more likely to relapse, even when their PTSD symptoms are being treated.
What You Can and Must Do
However, some treatment methods can help people with eating disorders and mental illnesses. One example is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This type of psychotherapy focuses on helping people develop positive coping skills while also addressing their underlying emotions.
Another method is interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), which looks at the relationship between a person and their family, friends, or significant other to help them resolve conflicts.
It’s also important for these people to have a support system. This may include family, friends, or a therapist that they can talk to about their struggles.
Recovery Is Possible
Despite the challenges, it is possible for people with an eating disorder and another mental illness to recover. With the help of professional treatment and a supportive network, they can learn to manage their conditions and live happy and healthy lives.
When a person suffers from two different conditions at once, it becomes difficult for them to determine which of their symptoms are caused by what. If you think your eating disorder may be triggered by a mental health problem such as depression or anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.