A little bit of anxiety is good for us – but not if you suffer from an eating disorder (Mental Health Awareness Week)

Online news, Scotland news
18 May 2023

Dr Shridevi Gopi-Firth, Vice-Chair and Dr Phil Crockett, Chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland write for Mental Health Awareness Week:

Most people don’t know that anxiety can be a good or bad thing for your mental health. It’s true. We all need a little bit to help us function as humans.

Anxiety goes back millions of years to when our human ancestors fought everyday stresses such as finding their next meal or dealing with predators. It also happens to be the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. It’s not just humans who experience it. Many animals use anxiety to help them survive. From navigating tough job interviews to breaking up with a partner – it’s a natural human emotion which evolved to serve a purpose.

Most people see anxiety as a bad thing so there are a lot of misunderstandings about it. But one thing’s for sure – we all experience it. Anxiety can be confusing as there are many different physical symptoms you may experience. Your heart races, hands shake, you sweat, and you may feel like you want to escape – otherwise known as the fight or flight response. But there is no cause for alarm. You’ll be pleased to know it’s a healthy part of our nervous system.

However, sometimes anxious feelings do become overwhelming and can overtake someone’s ability to lead a normal life. This can put strain on relationships and the ability to do well at school or even hold down a job. It can lead to severe distress and make us more vulnerable to other mental health problems.

As a psychiatrist who works with patients with eating disorders, it is not surprising that I come across this type of chronic anxiety every day. This is because anxiety and eating disorders go hand in hand. It can be a common driver for restriction of eating in anorexia nervosa or vomiting and laxative use in bulimia nervosa. And it can act as a fuel to keep the eating disorder going. This leads to a vicious cycle of further anxious feelings and more eating disorder driven actions.

Of course, an eating disorder can lead to anxiety about body-image and gaining weight and likewise it is often an anxiety disorder that triggers or maintains the condition. With greater anxiety in the mix, those with eating disorders turn towards limiting food, food rituals, laxative use and over exercise to try and take back control of their life. But these reactions can have a really bad affect. In fact, they can be dangerous as eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health conditions.

Although this may sound alarming, all is not to be feared as there are extremely successful treatments available that can help a patient achieve long-term recovery from their illness. Going forward, as psychiatrists we’d like to see greater public awareness of anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems across all sections of society.

We’d also like to see more focus on where people can find help when things do spiral out of control – whether it’s for yourself, a family member or friend. And if you’re a carer for someone with an eating disorder or serious mental health condition – you should look after your own mind too.

National charities such as BEAT and FEAST can be a godsend for those experiencing eating disorders and their loved ones. The number one rule to remember is that we all at some point in our lives experience a little anxiety. It’s a good thing and we’d be lost without it. As long as it doesn’t overtake your life and you feel things are getting out of control. And if it does start to become unmanageable, it’s time to speak to your GP or other medical professionals about it.

There are people out there – like psychiatrists and their colleagues – who are trained to help you get treatment and start to recover. The best thing to do is talk to others, seek support and banish that bad anxiety for good. 

For further information on how to look after your mental health during this special week and beyond, check out helpful resources at RCPsych, NHSInform or Breathing Space.

Samaritans Scotland also have a self-help app which can track moods and activities which are helpful for wellbeing. If you need to speak to someone urgently, you can call them on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.uk.

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