I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll probably say it a thousand more but not everyone who suffers with anorexia spent their formative years idolising super models in Vogue, counting calories in their packed lunch or weighing themselves and their Barbie in the bathroom.
Actually, I spent my childhood an anxious mess in the bathroom worrying about messing things up and counting ways not to get ill. And here lie the seeds of my eating disorder, rooted firmly in anxiety.
A study in 2004 found two thirds of people with an eating disorder also suffer with one or more lifelong anxiety disorder. In that group, around 42 percent developed their issues with anxiety, whether that be generalised, social, a phobia or OCD, in childhood, way before their eating disorder kicked in.
My life was hit by an anxiety disorder at the age of seven.
I developed emetophobia, a fear of vomit and illness after a traumatic incident at a local theatre. Living with this specific anxiety disorder resulted in a childhood splattered with panic attacks and obsessive rules. But I learnt how to get by. It was horrible to grow up feeling different to my friends, being a worrier, not really getting excited about things, instead dread them going wrong or being ruined by illness. I would go out of my way to avoid being sick.
My head was always full of my little coping tactics or I’d be busy searching for new ways to stop the anxiety.
I just needed a focus. I needed to take the anxiety away for good. And while I am at it, I’d like to feel good enough, I want to fix my body as well as my mind, I want to feel in control of my life. And for me, that’s where anorexia nervosa started to creep in. (I will try to keep this simple, but there are other reasons behind my eating disorder.)
For a while, it felt like I had found a simple, one-track coping mechanism.
I could control food, which kept me safe from sickness. I could focus on calories, which stopped me focusing on being sick. I could control my weight, because I couldn’t control the panic attacks. I could measure my worth in kilos, because measuring it against my friends was making me feel crap.
This miracle cure for anxiety was anorexia. Finally, I’d solved it. I was fixed. Wrong.
There is a big fault here. I was like an addict; I got more obsessed with this new found control, hooked on the way it made me feel. It became my life; I never wanted to feel anxiety again. But to keep up the hits had to get strong and for longer. I’d have to run further, eat less and see lower numbers on the scale to hit that euphoria. It seems I'm not alone, as studies into anorexia playing this role have shown.
Another fault in this 'fix' for anxiety is that anorexia is a serious mental illness. It brings its own anxieties and obsessions along for the ride, which get tangled with the underlying anxiety it was ‘meant’ to be solving.
I didn’t develop anorexia because I'd always been obsessed with being thin. One of the biggest reasons I, and many others, end up with an eating disorder is because we became obsessed with the distraction it gives us. The distraction from the anxiety which fills our minds, it gives us the order and structure we crave. Until, that is, it winds up being even more chaotic than the problems that came before it.
This is just one reason we need to be ANXIETY AWARE. We need to alert people to the faulty ways of taking anxieties away, before they get tangled too.
What's your experience with existential anxiety and an eating disorder? Please share.
Anxiety in Children - Guide for Parents from Young Minds
Beat - Eating Disorders