Social Anxiety and Disordered Eating

Social Anxiety and Disordered Eating

by Kristen Wright, LMFT

It’s the season for the holiday party…and an endless supply of scrumptious appetizers! It is time to get your small talk on and gather around friends and family to whom you may or may not be interested in talking. It is time for holidays…and anxieties. Maybe you have a tendency to overindulge on all the goodies at the food table? After all, you rarely get a chance to eat these sweets or homemade savories, so might as well. Maybe overeating is your daily habit and something you are not even thinking about. If you have any anxiety about socializing or overeating at a party, then this article is for you. 

A few years ago, I found that I couldn’t stop the snacking and grazing at parties. I would sometimes dread going to a party knowing that I would most likely overindulge on the sweet or savory delights. I would often wonder if people were watching me and taking notice of my extra size portions. It was a compulsive and conscious decision on my part because if I was eating, I didn’t have to worry about talking. I would think to myself, “What will I have in common with the other people at the party?” “What if I don’t have anything to say?” “What if I am not that interesting?” Maybe for you, there are other anxious thoughts: “I don’t want to share about my year.” “I don’t want to be reminded that I am still single.” “I don’t want to have to talk to strangers.”

Sometimes that table of food can be the way out of a dead conversation. If we are snacking at the table, we have a common interest and shared experience, and that common factor is the food. Many times, I would stand by the food table and just comment on the food with the people I was chatting with. And let’s say if I got into a conversation I wasn’t particularly interested in, I could excuse myself to go refill my plate. It became my escape behavior and after several years I realized I needed to address my anxieties and learn to better manage my social anxiety.

Addressing Social Anxiety


I had to develop a new focus when attending social events and parties. Rather than focusing on my discomfort, I started to focus my attention on learning about the other person. I started to find I could actually enjoy having a conversation. I also came to realize that I was becoming more of an explorer with every conversation. That was my new focus, and the other person was unaware of my anxiety or the reason for my probing.  I was just learning how to actively listen to what was being said.  And I became less preoccupied about food.  I found I could focus on the way they talked or perhaps their posture. I heard what they said. I stayed in the conversation and asked questions about what they were saying. It was about being “present” and the first few times were both an experiment and an experience. It was scary at first and I had to push myself. Time went by increasingly faster as I became engrossed in other things besides food. I no longer needed to quell my anxiety by satisfying my taste buds. And, although this helped to get me started, the second phase involved strengthening my hunger and fullness cues.

Addressing the Temptations of an Abundance of Food

There were some other factors that played a role in my overeating at parties and that was what we often refer to here at Eating Disorder Therapy LA as “Diet Mentality.” A lot of times I would go to a party and say, “I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat something.” Or sometimes I was like, “I never have access to these goodies, I might as well eat as many as I can.” This is known as unhelpful all-or-nothing thinking.  We can learn to change our thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a great treatment modality used to change thought patterns of this nature. Learning to find the grey area between all-or-nothing thinking takes work but helps us to avoid overindulging.

Addressing the Over Eating at Parties 

Let’s talk briefly about the actual eating. Yes it will take some conscious planning and preparation to prevent overeating at the party.

If you struggle from overeating at parties, here are some strategies you might try:

  • Eat regular meals and snacks leading up to the party: Many times we try and restrict or skip meals prior to a party in anticipation of eating a lot at the party. This though sets you up to overeat. It is best to eat as regularly as possible.
  • Make it a meal: If the party is during an actual mealtime, then plan to eat what would feel like a meal. If you are planning to eat a meal beforehand, pre-plan that you are having a snack or dessert at the party and recognize your options will be about what really taste good.
  • Scan the table of goodies: Do a survey of the food and make decisions to be selective about what you want rather than just loading up the plate as soon as you get there. When you make your choices of what to eat, taste what appeals to you and eat what tastes good. If something isn’t appealing or satisfying, then you have the freedom to not eat it. At Eating Disorder Therapy LA we work with our clients to help them understand what being and feeling satisfied is about and understanding fullness.
  • It is normal to indulge on holidays: Yes is its! And we need to remind ourselves we can enjoy and practice mindful eating at the same time. Remind yourself as well that you can have these treats again soon, maybe buy them, or have them at another party. That way you won’t fall into the fear that you won’t ever have these foods again and over indulge.
  • Listen to when you get full: It might get a little disappointing to have to stop eating. But be present and mindful that this happens and the feeling will pass in a few minutes.

Phobia Exposure Therapy

Phobia Exposure Therapy

We are excited to announce that we are now providing virtual reality phobia exposure therapy –partnering with Psious. Psious is one of the pioneering companies in the development of Virtual Reality for therapeutc purposes. The Spanish company offers immersive 3D simulations designed to treat a variety of mental disorders. A multidisciplinary team of psychologists, 3D artists and engineers worked together to create the first online platform for mental health practitioners, which makes the treatment readily accessible to patients.

Exposure is a critical component for the successful treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders. Standard therapy for phobias typically includes imaginal exposure (using the client’s ability to imagine him or herself in different scenarios such as on an airplane or in an elevator) done in session and in vivo exposure (real-life exposure) assigned as homework. Virtual reality therapy offers a powerful alternative, in that exposure scenarios that feel vivid can be faced with your therapist in session. This provides many benefits including privacy and cost-effectiveness (versus, for example, taking multiple actual plane flights). Virtual reality exposure therapy is effective and it allows the therapist to customize and titrate exposures specifically for each patient.

In VR, the patient wears a headset, which creates a completely 3-dimensional, immersive virtual environment.

Below is a demonstration of virtual reality and augmented reality exposure treatment for spider phobia.

Some of the issues we are able to treat using VR include:

  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of heights
  • Fear of enclosed spaces
  • Fear of driving
  • Fear of insects

Exposure therapy is a component of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which is the leading treatment for anxiety disorders. You will receive a complete assessment and treatment plan. CBT is a time-limited treatment. Phobias can often be successfully treated in 5 to 15 sessions of psychotherapy. In addition to exposure practice, treatment also includes psychoeducation, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation training.

If you are looking for phobia exposure therapy in Los Angeles, call (323-473-2112) or email us (lmuhlheim@eatingdisordertherapyla.com) today to learn more.