Process Addictions and Eating Disorders: What Are the Connections?

Woman on mountain thinking about her Process Addictions

Contributed by Staff of Timberline Knolls

Eating Disorder behaviors such as bingeing, purging and starvation serve a purpose to the individual. This is because process addictions such as these create positivity in the brain’s reward center; therefore, the disorder is more about getting the “high,” and exerting control, than the desire to be thin.

The same reward can also be achieved through an action or behavior. Engaging in compulsive mood-altering actions or activities is referred to as a process addiction. The most common process addictions within the eating disordered population are shopping, work, Internet/technology, exercise, and sex/love addictions.

Parallels Between Addictions and Eating Disorders

Mountain climberThese activities are a normal part of most people’s lives but become a problem, 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.

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 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 because urges are so high
  • Guilty for doing something so disgusting
  • Hiding evidence of the behavior
  • See 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

Spending and Eating Disorders:

  • Compulsive spending like restricting 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 justify “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:Woman in the clouds

  • The need to be perfect
  • Often come from “look good” families
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • 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
  • 39-48% of people with eating disorders also have exercise addiction
  • Exercise is a way to burn calories “purge” which presents as improved relationship with food  ex. eating 100% yet the person is still focused on weight
  • Exercise addiction is often seen as the lesser of the 2 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.

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.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 9, 2019
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.