Behavioral Contributions to Food Addiction
Behaviors are learned responses to stimuli. That sounds very clinical, but basically, a person learns to behave in ways that are effective in getting things she wants. How does this work with food addictions? If someone is anxious in a social setting, for example, and she experiences a calmer mood after snacking on appetizers, she is likely to repeat this pattern in similar situations in the future.
Many people use food to distract themselves from difficult emotions such as sadness, loneliness, tiredness, anxiety, and anger. This is particularly true if a person has difficulty talking about his feelings. If an overweight person has been teased a lot, then behaviorally it reinforces the feeling that he should keep things to himself as much as possible.
What emotion most frequently triggers overeating?
Anxiety has been found to be the most common emotion to set off overeating. Food can have a soothing effect that at least temporarily calms one's anxious mood. The problem is that guilt often follows when one realizes how much food has been used to self-medicate. It can become a vicious cycle in which a food addict feels hopelessly trapped.
After all, when something is emotionally soothing or comforting, it is logical to behave in ways that will keep it working. Family members are theoretically safe people to talk with about things that are troubling, but if there are problems in family relationships, that may not feel like an option. As a behavioral means of dealing with troubling emotions, food is often readily available and can appear very attractive.
The Abuse Connection
From a behavioral perspective, one can see how sexual abuse and eating disorders may be connected. When someone has been sexually violated, extra poundage to make oneself unattractive may feel like protection to prevent a recurrence of the abuse.
Additionally, the chemical soothing stimulated by eating sugars, fats, and refined carbohydrates may be a welcome relief from the painful emotions a sexual abuse victim experiences on a regular basis. The possible health hazards from becoming obese may seem worth the risk to someone whose body has been dealt a cruel blow by sexual abuse.
The connection between sexual abuse and eating disorders is complex. Childhood sexual abuse is a significant risk factor for eating disorders when combined with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and a condition known as alexithymia. Alexithymia is being emotionally disconnected from life experiences.
If someone has been a victim of sexual abuse and food addiction has become a way of coping, professional help will be necessary for recovery from both disorders. The combination of sexual abuse and food addiction is typically too complex for someone to manage alone.