I’ve been thinking a lot recently how eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors mimic other addictions. Just like a drink or drug, an eating-disordered action can be compulsive (or impulsive), can rescue us (temporarily) from difficult feelings, and can create a host of new problems that obscure what originally led us to these behaviors in the first place.
With addictions, we often use functional analyses to understand the patterns associated with alcohol/drug use. In its simplest form, a functional analysis looks like this:
That is, certain situations or events lead us to respond in a certain way, and these responses have various consequences. With alcohol/drugs, we often focus on the triggers (people, places, things) that lead us to drink/use (or not), and the positive and negative consequences of using (or not). To apply this to eating-disordered behaviors, we first need to identify the behaviors in question. Here are some examples:
3) Emotional eating
4) Excessive exercise
5) Excessive weighing/mirror-gazing
6) Engaging in critical thinking about our bodies
7) “Feeling” fat
8) Desperately turning to the next diet
As for triggers, to expand upon people/places/things, they are often thoughts we have, emotions we experience (the concept of “emotional eating” itself addresses 2/3 of the equation above), stimuli we encounter (e.g., a fashion magazine, gaining weight/losing weight, a picture of ourselves, a bad day), physical symptoms (e.g., feeling overly full, tense, lethargic), etc. What other triggers do you experience?
Once we encounter these triggers, we have a number of behavioral responses that we may employ (some repertoires may be larger than others). For the purpose of this discussion, the critical distinction ultimately occurs between engaging in an eating-disordered behavior (see above) or not, instead relying on a more adaptive coping resource. Each option is associated with consequences, good and bad. Bingeing might make us uncomfortable, but having access to unlimited, tasty food feels good in the here-and-now. Berating ourselves for the size of our stomachs may cause us to experience anger or grief, but it potentially distracts us from even more uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Examining some of the other consequences—good and bad—of engaging in these behaviors may help elucidate our decision-making processes.