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Co-Occurring Process Addictions and Eating Disorders

Process addictions are behavioral addictions to activities or processes, such as gambling, eating, tanning, video gaming, financial spending, sexual intercourse, and internet activities.

Research has suggested that process addictions can be just as debilitating and difficult to overcome as drug and alcohol addictions.

Like all addictions, behaviors are typically ones that the individual continues to engage in, regardless of the adverse consequences, such as financial loss, legal issues, and health concerns.

Enjoyment in activities may change and decrease over time and become habitual or compulsive.

Other research has indicated that genetic factors can increase a person’s likelihood to have a process addition. Gambling, binge eating, and compulsive sex are associated with neurobiological features in the brain that are similar to those found in association with substance use disorders.

Connection to Binge Eating Disorder

Often with food addiction comes Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Binge Eating Disorder is a diagnosable disorder within the DSM-V. It is defined as recurring episodes of eating a significant volume of food within a short timeframe. The excessive eating may be unrelated to a feeling of hunger. The experience is usually accompanied by feelings of loss of control.

Following a binge episode, individuals may experience feelings such as guilt, loss of self-worth, and disgust. Some individuals may hide the binge eating episodes from family and friends, and have a sense of distress around episodes occurring at least one time per week for three months to be diagnosable.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), in the past 50 years, the number of individuals with eating disorders has more than doubled. Both males and females can develop disordered eating patterns. Binge eating is one of the most common eating disorders and over 8 million Americans struggle with this issue.

Individuals with this disorder may be overweight, but obesity is not necessarily a sign of binge eating disorder. It can, however, cause similar health risks and concerns, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Process Addictions and Eating Disorders

Food addictions, which are a process addiction, can be a challenge for eating disorder recovery. Food and eating cannot be eliminated from one’s life in the way that behaviors associated with other process addictions can be. It can take longer to reach recovery and require a combination of treatment modalities (i.e, group work, therapy, etc).

There are various factors to process addictions and co-occurring eating disorders. First is a person’s genetic background. It is a higher likelihood that a person who has a family history of a process addiction or eating disorder will be more vulnerable to developing one or both. Family dynamics can also play a role.

Social pressures can also contribute to the development of process addictions and eating disorders. Often, societies are filled with images of immediate gratification, dieting, weight loss, beauty, and financial gain with quick schemes.

Commercials, billboards, and peer influence can shape a person’s beliefs about him/herself.

Physical or sexual abuse or other traumas can also push a person toward a process addiction or eating disorder to numb out or escape their emotional pain. Other mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and sensory processing/autism disorders can make a person vulnerable to a process addiction or eating disorder to create structure or behaviors to help build a sense of control over the other symptoms.

Lastly, low self-esteem is also part of process addiction and eating disorder development. Feeling low self-worth and negative thoughts around one’s ability or self can give a person a desire to control their life through food addiction, process addictions, and/or eating disorders.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

Treatment for co-occurring disorders is most effective when integrated with multiple members of a treatment team. Individual psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, group support, a psychiatrist, and medical physician are all recommended to help a person reach full recovery.

Typically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is used to help shift negative thinking patterns and behaviors. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is used to help teach healthy coping skills, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation. Mindfulness is helpful to teach breathing techniques, stress reduction, and inner awareness.

12-step programs can also be beneficial in treatment to assist individuals with group support, sponsorship, and accountability. Programs, such as Overeaters Anonymous and Eating Disorder Anonymous, are helpful places to find additional support.

Treatment for a co-occurring eating disorder and process addiction can lead to long-term recovery. There are various treatment protocols available for each disorder that an interdisciplinary team of addiction and eating disorder professionals can utilize to design a tailored treatment plan.

In conclusion, process addictions and eating disorders are interconnected through a desire to control one’s sense of feeling out of control in their life. It can be difficult to treat these co-occurring disorders, but recovery is achievable through group work, 12-step support, ongoing therapy, and additional resources.

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