When Eating Disorders and Panic Attacks Co-Exist

August 28, 2020 Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

An estimated 9.2 million adults in the U.S. live with more than one form of mental illness,1 and that statistic does not even count the numerous children and people across the globe who experience this reality also. Two mental health issues that can co-exist with one another are eating disorders and panic attacks, both of which can escape detection or diagnosis. While panic attacks can range in severity and escalate for a number of different reasons, many of the same fears that cause eating disorder behaviors can contribute to panic attacks as well. If your eating disorder often co-exists with panic attacks, coping mechanisms are available to you.   

The Intersection of Eating Disorders and Panic Attacks

Several eating disorder-related beliefs can trigger an anxiety response. The idea that certain foods are demonized, a missed workout is a failure, or grocery stores and restaurants are danger zones can lead to both emotional and physical fear-based reactions. When confronted by one of these triggers, your heart could quicken, lungs could constrict, hands or feet could tingle, forehead could ache, stomach could feel nauseous, and glands could sweat. Your emotions could vacillate from anger and distress, to shame and terror, to grief and overwhelmedness.

While these are frequent reactions to what the eating disorder voice has conditioned you to fear, there is a difference between generalized anxiety and panic attacks. A continuous loop of anxious thoughts or emotions can disturb your level of functioning and cause you to feel an undercurrent of alarm as you move through the world. But a panic attack is all-consuming and sometimes even immobilizing until it passes.

A panic attack is often triggered by a specific event, memory, image, or flashback which activates the body's "fight-or-flight" reflex.2 When this occurs, both the mind and body assume you are in immediate crisis—even if there is no actual, present issue—and you can experience an onslaught of the physical sensations listed above. An intense panic attack usually recedes after 15–20 minutes,3 and it could be in direct correlation to the triggers or anxieties driven by an eating disorder.                  

Manage Panic Attacks that Co-Exist with Eating Disorders

If your eating disorder and panic attack symptoms co-exist with one another, here are some coping mechanisms you can use. The strategies I discuss in the video below continue to help me relieve some of the intensity during a panic attack, as well as to restore both emotional and physical equilibrium once the throes of it are over. I hope you find these beneficial in your own eating disorder recovery as well. 


  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers. Updated Sep. 2019.
  2. Retano, A., "The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety." December 14, 2014.
  3. Cleveland Clinic, "Are Anxiety Attacks and Panic Attacks the Same Thing?" November 29, 2019.

APA Reference
Schurrer, M. (2020, August 28). When Eating Disorders and Panic Attacks Co-Exist , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

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