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Obesity-Related Anxiety: A Me-Too Disease?

April 15, 2011

Psychiatry seems to have a strange fascination with labels.  (I would say it has an obsession with labels, but then it would be labeled OCD.)  We’re so concerned with what we call something that we sometimes ignore the real phenomena staring us in the face every day.

Consider social anxiety disorder (SAD).  Some have argued that this is simply a technical, high-falutin’ label for general shyness, which even “normal” people experience in varying degrees.  There are indeed cases in which someone’s shyness can be horribly incapacitating—and these cases usually benefit from specialized treatment—but there also exists a broad gradient of social anxiety that we all experience.  If I spend too much time worrying about whether the shy patient in my office meets specific criteria for SAD, I might lose sight of why he came to my office in the first place.

So a news story this week caught my eye, with the headline “Obese People Can Suffer From Social Anxiety Due to Weight Alone.”  To a non-psychiatrist, this statement probably seems self-evident: people who are overweight or obese (just like people with any other aspect of their physical appearance that makes them appear “different from normal”) might be anxious or uncomfortable in social settings, simply because of their weight.

This discomfort doesn’t meet criteria for a DSM-IV diagnosis, though.  (At this point, you might ask, but who cares?  Good question—I’ll get to that below.)  The DSM-IV specifies that the symptoms of social anxiety must be unrelated to any medical condition (of which obesity could be considered one).  So if you’re overly self-conscious in social situations due to your weight, or due to an unsightly mole on your face, or due to a psoriasis flare-up, or because you’re a dwarf, sorry, you don’t “qualify” as SAD.

Apparently some researchers want to change this.  In a study to be published this month in the journal Depression and Anxiety, researchers at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital investigated a large number of obese individuals and found that some of them have social anxiety due to their weight and nothing else, resulting in “greater impairment in social life and greater distress about their social anxiety” than those obese patients who had been diagnosed with (non-obesity-related) SAD earlier in life.  They argue that we should expand the diagnostic criteria in the upcoming DSM-5 to include these folks.  (Indeed, the subtitle of the article in question is “Implications for a Proposed Change in DSM-5.”)

An investigation of their methods, though, reveals that their key finding may have been a foregone conclusion from the start.  Here’s what they did: They interviewed 1,800 people who were being evaluated for weight loss surgery.  (A pre-op comprehensive psychiatric evaluation is often a requirement for bariatric surgery.)  616 people had no psychiatric history whatsoever, while 135 of them had been diagnosed with SAD at some point in their lives.  But then they found 40 additional people whom they labeled as having something they called “modified SAD,” or “clinically significant social anxiety … only related to weight concerns.”  The paper demonstrates that this “modified SAD” group had psychosocial characteristics (like work/social impairment, past/current social functioning, etc) which were strikingly similar to patients with SAD.

But wait a minute… they admit they “labeled” a subset of patients with something that resembled SAD.  So in other words, they pre-selected people with SAD-like symptoms, and then did the analysis to show that, sure enough, they looked like they have SAD!  It’s sort of like taking all the green M&Ms out of a bowl and then performing a series of chemical and physical tests to prove that they are green.  OK, maybe I shouldn’t have used a food analogy, but you get my point…

I don’t mean to be weigh too heavily (no pun intended) on study’s authors (for one thing, the lead author shared a draft of the article with me prior to publication).  I know why articles like this are written; I’m aware that the medical exclusion has made it impossible for us to diagnose SAD in many people who actually have debilitating anxiety due to some obvious cause, like obesity or stuttering.  And this is relevant because we have to give a DSM code in order to be paid for the services we provide.  As with much in life, it’s often all about the money.

But if that’s the only reason we’re squabbling over whether obesity-related anxiety deserves the DSM seal of approval, then I’m sorry, but it’s another example of psychiatrists and psychologists missing the point.  Whether we call something SAD—or depression, or panic disorder, or ADHD, or bipolar disorder, or whatever—means less to the patient than what he or she actually experiences.  Admittedly, we do have to give a “diagnosis” at some point, but we need to ensure our diagnoses don’t become so homogenized that we end up looking at all of our patients through the same lens.

The 40 obese Rhode Islanders who are socially distressed due to their weight probably don’t care whether they’re labeled “SAD,” “modified SAD,” or anythingelse, they just want help.  They want to feel better, and we owe it to them to get our heads out of our DSMs and back into the therapeutic setting where they belong.

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