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How are Eating Disorders and Addiction Connected?

Many people have noticed similarities between eating disorders and addictions. Indeed, eating disorders are some of the most common co-occurring disorders with addiction. In other words, people suffering with alcoholism or drug addiction are often suffering with eating disorders at the same time.

Eating Disorder

Why is this the case? Is there really a connection between eating disorders and addiction or is it circumstantial?

Similarities between eating disorders and addiction:

Let’s first discuss how eating disorders are similar to addiction. The main similarities are found in the behavioral symptoms.

Some of the shared symptoms include:

  • cravings and compulsions surrounding the behavior
  • an obsession with the substance or behavior
  • letting go of other interests and basic day-to-day activities
  • self-destructive behaviors
  • inability to stop the behavior even after many attempts
  • increased tolerance to the substance or behavior leading to the need to increase the intensity
  • continuing the behavior even after experiencing negative – and even life-threatening – consequences
  • concern among loved ones about the behavior

Eating disorders and addiction can look very similar. What is the reason for this connection?

Cause and effect:

In some cases, eating disorders and addiction have a cause-and-effect relationship. Someone struggling with an eating disorder may turn to substances to attempt to ease their symptoms. Eventually, they begin to rely on substances to avoid the severe consequences of the eating disorder.

The connection goes in the opposite direction as well. When fighting an addiction, eating disorders can become a substitute. They become an unhealthy coping mechanism that replaces the addiction.

The same effects:

However, the cause-and-effect scenario is not the only relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse. Rather, they can have similar effects and are therefore used for the same purpose.

People who become addicted to substances or develop an eating disorder are generally struggling to find healthy coping mechanisms. Instead of managing strong emotions, they turn to something that can help get rid of the emotion. Overeating is similar in this way to taking substances which have a ‘feel-good’ effect. Anorexia is similar in this way to alcohol and other substances which numb the body and mind.

There is also a temporary sense of control that people find in substance use as well as in eating disorders. In the midst of events and emotions they are helpless to change, they turn to the substance or the behavior to take control over what they can.

Treatment of eating disorders and addiction:

The treatment of eating disorders and addiction is connected but is not the same. They are, after all, separate illnesses and require specific treatments. However, for people with co-occurring disorders, they can be treated together at a dual-diagnosis rehab. This is a rehab which considers addiction within its context, with the understanding that you cannot treat one disorder in isolation.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or eating disorders, seek help from mental health providers. It is also prudent to look out for symptoms of eating disorders when struggling with addiction and vice versa.

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