Anxiety and Food: When to Seek Help
There are numerous reasons one could have anxiety about food and eating: a drive for thinness and/or fear of weight gain, a fear of losing control over eating, anxiety about a health condition, fears about an adverse consequence of eating certain foods perhaps based on a past negative experience (including food allergies), pickiness or an aversion to trying new tastes and textures, or anxiety about the quality, “cleanliness” or safety of food.
Some people become so accustomed to the great lengths they take to avoid the situations that trigger their anxiety, that they start believing that they are managing "just fine". Others deny they have an issue and minimize the distress certain food/eating situations cause them. Some feel they will out-grow their issues and still others feel their issues do not rise to the level of being an actual problem.
So when is seeking professional help a good idea? Here are 5 signs and indicators:
1. Nutritional deficiency/health consequences
2. Significant weight change and/or difficulty maintaining a healthy weight
3. Psychosocial functional impairment
4. Preoccupation/Difficulty concentrating
5. Rigidity to the point of missing out on life
Most people understand how and why numbers 1 and 2 warrant professional help. Most people, however, tend to underestimate the significance of numbers 3, 4 and 5. These are often overlooked or dismissed but in fact deserve just as much attention. In my experience working with eating disorders, disordered eating and food anxiety, it is often those last 3 items that end up driving people to actually want change in their lives, to want a better relationship with food and eating, and to reduce the mental energy and space that food anxiety takes up.
Examples of psychosocial functional impairment are not being able to go out to restaurants or friends’ homes for meals due to extreme anxiety or fear, having to look up menus in advance, or not attending parties/social events involving food (which, don’t they all?), or skipping out on work meetings or events that involve food, or even grocery shopping. Relationships may also be impacted, with food events becoming a big ordeal with conflicts and stress and loved ones not understanding.
Preoccupation with food/eating/weight or anxiety and fears about negative consequences can leave a person unable to focus on anything else, missing important content in classes or at work, unable to engage with others interpersonally, or unable to complete daily tasks with a clear head.
Rigidity can become a major barrier to living one’s best life. Tight control and regimented routines create predictability and temporarily may decrease or manage anxiety however it actually results in the maintenance and reinforcement of this anxiety. Avoiding anything that interferes with this control and rigidity keeps people disconnected and isolated from others and from new experiences and adventures.
Working through these issues with a therapist specializing in eating disorders and anxiety can help people learn to confront and challenge their thoughts and behaviors around food. Learning to approach one’s discomfort and anxiety versus avoiding, numbing or suppressing it serves to decrease it’s intensity over time and improves one’s psychosocial, interpersonal, and cognitive functioning. When these areas are addressed, one’s quality of life improves, which is ultimately what we all seek and what we want for those we love.
If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one due to food-related anxiety, contact me to discuss how my therapy services can help. I treat all types of eating disorders including Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant- Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders.