A young man sits across from a therapist. They review his experiences with disordered eating and mental health disorders.
Published On: January 4, 2021|Categories: Mental Health, Substance Abuse, Treatment|

Some people experience the symptoms of an eating disorder and other mental health disorders at the same time. For example, you might have the lack of energy and sadness common with depression while also severely restricting your food intake.

So which mental health disorder should you be diagnosed with – depression or an eating disorder? In many cases, you’ll actually be diagnosed with both. These two conditions are called co-occurring disorders since they happen at the same time.

How Common Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

Co-occurring mental health and eating disorders are more common than you might think. According to a 2015 study, 71% of people with eating disorders had at least one other type of mental health disorder.

Even if you’re not diagnosed with an eating disorder, you might experience disordered eating and distorted body image along with your other mental health symptoms. It’s important to get treated for both issues. Otherwise, you will find your recovery threatened by the unaddressed symptoms.

Here are some of the most common mental health problems that frequently occur with eating disorders.

Anxiety Disorders

One study found that about two-thirds of people with an eating disorder also had an anxiety disorder, the most common being obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and social phobia. Interestingly, most of the participants in the study said they developed an anxiety disorder before they developed an eating disorder. The study authors concluded that anxiety disorders are likely a risk factor for eating disorders.

Many eating disorder symptoms also have a strong link to anxiety disorders. For example, people may develop eating behaviors or exercise rituals that mimic the compulsive actions common with OCD. Individuals with eating disorders also experience a lot of anxiety over food, weight, and body image. In some cases, exerting control over food can be a coping mechanism for anxiety.

Learn more about anxiety disorders and how they’re treated.


Depression sometimes comes before an eating disorder, but in other cases, the eating disorder can trigger physical changes that may lead to depression. Like anxiety, depression also has some symptoms that overlap with eating disorders. For example, loss of appetite is common with depressive disorders, but it’s also a classic symptom of anorexia nervosa. And while binge eating disorder involves frequent overeating, depression may also drive this eating behavior.

As you can see, these two conditions have a complex relationship. Certain symptoms may reinforce each other. Therefore, treatment must address both conditions. Antidepressant medication may be especially helpful for people with these two disorders, but therapy is an equally important part of recovery.

Know the symptoms of depression.

Substance Abuse

There is a strong link between substance abuse and disordered eating. Some research indicates that 35% of people who abuse drugs or alcohol also have eating disorders. Additionally, bulimia and the binge/purge subtype of anorexia are more strongly associated with substance abuse than other eating disorders.

Most of us don’t associate diet pills or laxatives with addiction. However, many people with eating disorders abuse these substances in an effort to lose weight. They also commonly turn to alcohol and prescription or illegal drugs. One particularly alarming trend is “drunkorexia,” a disordered eating pattern where the individual binge drinks and restricts food to “make up” for the alcohol consumed.

When someone has a substance use disorder and another mental health disorder or eating disorder, this is known as a dual diagnosis. Effective treatment must address both disorders.


Self-harm, or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), is intentionally inflicting damage to oneself through cutting, burning, scratching, and other methods. About 25-55% of people with eating disorders also engage in NSSI.

Self-harm combined with the effects of an eating disorder take a great toll on the body and mind. Although NSSI itself is not considered a mental health disorder, it is a troubling symptom that should be addressed in treatment.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is triggered by a major trauma, including:

  • Accident
  • Injury
  • Abuse
  • Assault
  • The sudden death of a loved one

Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is a related condition that develops after ongoing childhood trauma. Both may co-occur with eating disorders. In fact, trauma is a major risk factor for disordered eating.

Patients who are struggling with both PTSD and eating disorders need effective treatment for both. Otherwise, unresolved trauma will continue to trigger eating disorder symptoms.

Learn more about the different types of trauma disorders.

Getting Help for Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people get treated for one mental health disorder but fail to receive any treatment for a co-occurring disorder. This may be because one disorder is dominant and overshadows the symptoms of the other one. In other cases, the clinicians they worked with were not familiar with how to treat their other disorder. However, without addressing both conditions, the individual will continue to suffer from mental health symptoms.

Are you currently in recovery for an eating disorder and suspect you may have an underlying mental health disorder that is threatening your recovery? Or perhaps you’re experiencing disordered eating along with a mental health disorder.

High Focus Centers can help. Our Positive Reflections Track addresses disordered eating along with mental health symptoms. Contact our admissions department at (800) 877-3628 to inquire about this program.

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