Is there a Correlation between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Eating Disorders?

We are at a crossroads in the United States; a time when mental illnesses are on the rise and no one can seem to agree on a healthcare system that works to treat them. Social factors such as social media, movies and magazines have also lead to an increase in the onset of eating disorders in the United States; particularly among young women aged 16 to 30. Two of the most common eating disorders in the United States are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is accompanied by starvation, a distorted body image and a fear of gaining weight. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by purging food after it’s been consumed, excessive exercise and long periods of fasting.

Women that struggle with an eating disorder commonly struggle with a co-occurring disorder; most often obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, anxiety or a drug and alcohol addiction. An estimated 41% of individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder also suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder.  Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by excessive thoughts that lead to repetitive behaviors. The reason obsessive compulsive disorder typically coincides with eating disorders is because women with eating disorders tend to obsess over the foods they eat, the amount of calories in the foods, the weight they see on the scale and their overall body image. In fact, the two disorders are so similar, it can often become difficult for clinicians to determine which disorder came first. Determining which disorder came first is the key to helping a patient overcome their dual diagnosis. Women with both disorders will also go overboard on exercise, use laxatives and other supplements to lose weight or follow certain rituals when eating a meal. Common rituals are to cut up food into tiny little pieces or count the number of bites they’ve taken as a form of portion control.

It’s widely accepted that the causes of eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder are caused by genetic and environmental factors. Having a family member that has suffered from either disorder will greatly increase the likelihood that you could as well. An imbalance in the body’s neurotransmitters are thought to cause obsessive compulsive disorder. Experiencing a traumatic event, which in turn increases anxiety, can also lead to the development of either OCD or an eating disorder.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure and response prevention therapy (a form of CBT) are by far the best treatment methods for women that struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. Exposure and response prevention therapy is a relatively simple concept. A CBT therapist will ask their patient to create a list of situations or items that they fear that leads to their compulsive behaviors. One by one, the therapist exposes the patient to these fears without allowing them to engage in one of their compulsive behaviors such as washing their hands. Over time, the anxiety the patient feels towards these items decreases and so does their compulsive and repetitive behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy are perfect for treating eating disorders because they increase mindfulness and improve thinking patterns while also improving emotion regulation.



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