Contributor: Staff of Timberline Knolls
Eating Disorder behaviors such as binging, purging and starvation serve a purpose for the affected individual. Process Addictions do, too. This is because these behaviors create a sense of positivity and wellbeing in the brain’s reward center. Therefore, these disordered behaviors are more about getting the “high,” and exerting control, than the seemingly obvious reason.
Similarly, such a reward can also be acquired through an action or behavior. Engaging in compulsive mood-altering actions or activities is referred to as a process addiction. The compulsion is strong enough to force the individual to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional, be it context of home, work or the community.
A co-occurring mental health diagnosis can surface around the same time as an eating disorder, can precede it, or can emerge after the eating disorder has already begun. Various factors such as genetic predisposition, social pressures, media propagation of unrealistic ideals, physical or sexual abuse and low self-esteem can all lead to eating disorders and co-occurring process addictions.
Parallels between Process Addictions and Eating Disorders
The most common process addictions found within the eating disordered population are related to shopping, work, substance abuse, Internet/technology, exercise, and sex/love addictions.
Some of these activities are a normal part of most people’s lives but become a problem, or an addiction, when certain conditions prevail. These include participating in the activity with the intention of avoiding painful feelings and chasing the high associated with the activity. It also includes being enslaved or obsessed with the behavior to the point that the activity becomes unmanageable and destructive.
Similar to eating disorders, this class of behaviors are employed by an individual to distract from or soothe emotional, physical, relational or trauma-induced stressors. Since these activities are so ingrained in normal functioning of life, they are often hard to detect.
Eating disorders, substance abuse and process addictions have more similarities than differences. They all provide the illusion of control over that which is uncontrollable, then ultimately engaging in things they never imagined doing. Women have been arrested for stealing food, mothers/fathers have left children unattended to go binge and purge or people spend money on large amounts of food that was intended to pay bills.
Although process addictions and eating disorders appear so disparate on the surface, they share many issues in common, such as the following parallels:
- Sex Addiction, Binge Eating and Bulimia:
- Unable to focus due to the high intensity of urges
- Guilty for doing something that feels disgusting
- Hiding evidence of the behavior
- Viewing the self as “deficient and undesirable”
- Dreaming or fantasizing about sex or food
- Internet Addiction and Eating Disorders:
- Being on the computer can result in unhealthy eating such as restricting or bingeing
- Over stimulation resulting in sleep disturbance can result in night bingeing
- Neglect in hygiene which can increase self-loathing
- A way to avoid intimate relationships or avoid harsh realities of life
- Compulsive spending and Eating Disorders:
- Compulsive spending, similar to the restriction of food, can be linked to the pressure of physical beauty, looking good no matter what the price
- Like binge eating and purging, money can be hoarded or compulsively spent
- Engaging in one of the addictions can be a means of justification, rationalizing to oneself thinking “well at least I ‘m not doing….”
- Guilt and shame over spending and then returning items to relieve the guilt or purging to relieve the guilt of eating
- Work Addiction and Eating Disorders:
- The need to be perfect at whatever they do
- Often come from “look good” families; the impression created upon others is extremely important
- Unrealistic expectations are associated with performance and end results
- Never get to: cross the “finish line” , nothing is good enough (work/weight)
- Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders:
- Highest rate of exercise addiction is among people with eating disorders
- 39 to 48 percent of people with eating disorders also have exercise addiction
- Exercise is a way to burn calories “purge” which presents as improved relationship with food, even though the person is still focused on weight
- Exercise addiction is often seen as the lesser of the two evils
Because cross addiction is the rule, not the exception within the eating disordered population, not addressing other possible addictions concurrently puts that person at a very high risk for relapse. This is exactly why when an individual seeks treatment for a food-related disorder, other addictions must be addressed simultaneously.
Identifying when a behavior has turned into a problem issue and that problem has developed into an addiction can be tricky. Ultimately, any addiction is an illness of the brain, a chronic disease that requires intensive therapeutic and medical treatment. This deems dual diagnosis and the simultaneous, all-encompassing treatment of all co-occurring disorders mandatory for sustainable recovery. Individual psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, group support, a psychiatrist, and medical physician are all recommended to help a patient acquire full recovery.
 Grilo, C. M., Sinha, R., O’Malley, S. S. (2002). Eating disorders and alcohol use disorders. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-2/151-160.htm.
 Isabel, K. (2009). Lifetime substance abuse, family history of alcohol abuse, dependence and novelty-seeking in eating disorders: comparison study of eating disorder subgroups. Psychiatry & Clinician Neurosciences, 63:1, 83-87.
Staff, R. B. (n.d.). What Is Process Addiction & Types of Addictive Behaviors? Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/behavioral-addictions
Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.
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Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 30, 2019
Original version published February 22, 2017. Current version updated with statistics, recent research, and images.
Published on AddictionHope.com