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Teens: Eating Disorders Are a Form of Addiction

In many ways, an eating disorder mirrors an addiction. Although there is still debate about this in the field of psychology, the characteristics of eating disorders are very similar to the clinical and biological symptoms of drug and alcohol addiction.


For instance, when there’s an addiction, there’s an activation of the brain’s reward system. Just like the way drugs and alcohol can create a physical and psychological dependency, it is possible to develop an addiction to behaviors. Of course, gambling, shopping, sex can be behavioral addictions. In a behavioral addiction, there’s an activity that becomes the sole focus of one’s life to the exclusion and detriment of other life-activities. According to the American Psychological Association, there is evidence that points to behaviors, such as gambling, as having the same high, or rush in the brain, similar to the use of drugs. This high or rush in the brain can be true for someone with an eating disorder, particularly with the binge eating that takes place in Bulimia Nervosa.


Another similarity to a drug and alcohol addiction is the false sense of control and lack of control. With Bulimia Nervosa, there is a loss of ability to control food intake, and with Anorexia Nervosa, a teen is attempting to control her food intake. Control and loss of control, power and powerlessness are essential to the psychological illness of eating disorders.


In the same way, most addicts believe that drinking or using drugs is a way of controlling their life. They use drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with life’s stresses, for example. However, this is far from being true. What an addiction does is withhold one’s power. Instead of facing challenges head on, the powerless choice is to avoid it with drugs or alcohol. Instead of facing family issues, for instance, it’s easier to drink. But this robs one of his or her autonomy and can only exacerbate life’s challenges. Although for the addict, using drugs or drinking feels like a way to control life; it actually becomes a way to lose complete control.


Another way that addiction and eating disorders are similar is through fantasy and obsession. When there is an overwhelming amount of thinking, worrying, and dreaming about drinking or getting high, there’s an indication that there might be a compulsion. An addict isn’t only getting high, but you’re thinking about getting high and he or she is planning the day around getting high. Fantasizing and daydreaming about using drugs or drinking frequently accompanies addiction. The same is true with an eating disorder. Food and the control of food becomes the sole focus of a teen’s life.


Yet, another trait that addiction and eating disorders have in common is that they can both be self-nurturing. The self-nurturing aspect of addiction is its illusion. Although a person is choosing to engage in drinking or drugging on seemingly his or her own terms, he or she is doing it at times when there’s a need for self-nurturing. When the stress is high, that’s the time to go to the bar. When the argument begins, that’s when to pull out the marijuana. And often for a teen with an eating disorder, this is also true. When the stress is high, that’s when to eat. Or when the argument happens, that’s when to not eat and control the amount of food eaten that night.


Lastly, both eating disorders and addiction are a means of self-destruction. Addiction is always a pattern of destruction. In fact, addiction not only destroys the life around you – relationships, career, physical health, and so on – it’s also destroying yourself. And perhaps that’s where the destruction begins. Like a wheel with self-destruction at its center, the surrounding people, places, and things also feel the waves destruction too. All addictions lead to the spiritual, emotional, physical, and social destruction of the addict – and in this case, the one suffering from an eating disorder.


The point of revealing the ways that eating disorders and addictions are similar is to highlight that eating disorders need immediate attention. They can spiral out of control and even lead to death in severe cases. If you or someone you know is suffering from an addiction, find a mental health professional to talk to.



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