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What Do We Know About The Dangerous Relationship Between Eating Disorders And Addiction?

The relationship between eating disorders and addiction can be as complicated as it is devastating.

Research shows that up to 50% of people with eating disorders also abuse alcohol or illicit drugs. Similarly, up to 35% of people who abuse alcohol or illicit drugs struggle with eating disorders- a rate that is 11x higher than the general population.

The two conditions share similar trajectories and symptoms. If they coexist together, they can be a particularly concerning combination. In some cases, they can be downright life-threatening. Likewise, even if one condition is in “remission,” it’s not uncommon for the individual to start struggling more with the other condition. Let’s get into what you need to know.

Understanding The Connection Between Eating Disorders And Addiction

Many theories discuss the link between these two conditions. First, it’s important to look at the shared risk factors associated with eating disorders and addiction. These include:

  • History of trauma

  • Low self-esteem

  • Family history of either condition

  • Co-occurring mental illnesses like depression or anxiety

  • Unhealthy social or cultural norms

  • Predisposition to impulsive behavior

  • Typical onset occurring within adolescence or young adulthood

Any combination of these risk factors can increase one’s likelihood of struggling with a mental illness. That said, most experts agree that mental illness doesn’t stem from a single cause. Instead, people develop issues due to a variety of genetic and psychosocial variables.

Moreover, eating disorders and addiction can reinforce one another. One issue may unintentionally act as a precursor to the other issue. Some common patterns include:

  • Sacrificing daily food calories to consume more alcohol (this is a phenomenon known as drunkorexia)

  • Using drugs, such as amphetamines, that enhance weight loss

  • Losing one’s appetite due to drug use and feeling “good” about the subsequent weight loss, which can trigger a continued desire to lose weight

  • Taking mood-altering substances and steroids to build body mass

  • Frequent vomiting due to drug use, which can also trigger vomiting after eating (and reinforce a weight loss pattern)

  • Addictive behavior related to numbing (i.e. binge eating and abusing substances to the point of “not feeling”).

Why You Can’t Treat One Without The Other

Many people make the detrimental mistake of only treating one problem at a time. With this strategy, they often focus on the more “severe” issue first. That’s because they assume they need to get that issue “under control” before tackling any other problems.

Although this may sound like a good plan, this method is both misguided and harmful.

Mental illness is complicated, systemic, and connected. Problems do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in tandem; symptoms from one issue can quickly and seamlessly crossover into another issue. If someone struggles with low self-worth, they may abuse anything that can relieve some of that pain. Whether it’s substances, food, purging, sex, or gambling, the intention is the same: avoid feeling hurt.

Likewise, many people with eating disorders and addiction struggle with underlying health conditions. These conditions vary in severity, but they may include:

  • Cardiovascular issues

  • Rapid changes in the endocrine system

  • Decrease in bone density due to nutrient imbalances

  • Tooth decay

  • Ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems

  • Kidney failure

Therefore, people struggling with eating disorders and addiction must receive appropriate medical attention. Failure to address medical needs can cause long-term health complications. In extreme cases, such neglect can be fatal.

Furthermore, some people may have a higher level of insight into one condition than the other. For example, a person might feel very motivated to work on their substance problem. However, they don’t necessarily want to “give up” their eating disorder due to a fear of weight gain.

That said, comprehensive treatment entails examining all the others of distress. It also involves looking at various patterns and triggers that contribute to maladaptive functioning. As people learn more about self-esteem and positive coping skills, they often start treating themselves better.

How Professional Treatment Can Help

Both eating disorders and addiction can be insidious and complex. They’re often highly associated with shame, fear, and a low concept of self-worth. It’s not uncommon for people to feel alone in their struggles. While they often want change, they don’t know the first step to take to feel better.

Professional treatment teaches people how to live their lives free from the chaotic dysfunction associated with some dangerous habits. Therapy can help you learn more about the origin of your behavior. It can also teach you new ways of thinking and reframing your beliefs.

Additionally, peer support can be profoundly beneficial. Just knowing that you’re not alone- that other people share your struggles and fears- can be immensely relieving.

At The Resurface Group, we offer support for all kinds of mental illness. We help you find hope and meaning in your life. Contact us today to learn more about our process.

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