Eating Disorders and Social Anxiety

Research continues to demonstrate a link between eating disorders and social anxiety disorders. According to recent studies, it is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to also experience social anxiety. While the association between conditions appears understandable, more research needs to be done in order to find out how best to recognize anxiety disorders before they produce eating disorders and how to overcome eating disorders once they take hold.,

Persons with social anxiety feel a consistent fear of becoming the object of attention in a social setting or someplace where they must perform publicly. The person worries over a potential stumble and the pursuant embarrassment that would cause. The worry is overwhelming. The anxiety can be so intense that the person may undergo a panic attack even though they realize that their fear is out of proportion to the situation at hand. Despite that fact, the person’s fear is so gripping that it prevents them from being able to participate in what others would consider routine activities.

The link between social anxiety disorder and eating disorders should not be overly surprising given the fact that perfectionism and fear of criticism are core triggers for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders frequently stem from an obsessive fear that the person will make a mistake and receive criticism for it. This need to perform every task without error and the constant striving for the approval of others leads the person to his/her obsession with controlling body size and shape as well. Thus, the fear which underlies social phobia is also at the root of disordered eating.

Research in 2004 looked at close to 700 men and women with an eating disorder to see if social anxiety was in some way linked. Using an interview derived from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health (DSM-IV), researchers found that, in fact, 75 percent of the time people with eating disorders also suffered from some form of social phobia or anxiety disorder. The prevalence was strong enough to warrant listing anxiety disorders as a risk factor for developing an eating disorder.

Another study, this one conducted at the University of Nebraska, looked at female-only subjects when examining potential links between eating disorders and social anxiety. This time, researchers compared subjects with anorexia, bulimia or social anxiety with a normal control group. The study used self-reporting to demonstrate that the women with eating disorders also suffer more with social anxiety than do those without an eating disorder.

Persons with eating disorders may therefore tend to become socially isolated. Away from others, they can avoid any possible public failures as well as any criticism. Food becomes a comforting control mechanism. Despite the fact that the link between disordered eating and social phobia is recognized and even somewhat understood, many questions remain. Eating disorders are notoriously difficult to treat and therefore more research in this area is warranted.

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