Compulsive Eating & Depression: Seeking Professional Help

Woman struggling with depression

Contributor: Melissa O’Neill, LCSW, Director of Program Development at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Addictions and eating disorders rarely manifest alone.

Whereas a patient may have a primary diagnosis of anorexia or bulimia, it is likely that she will have a secondary diagnosis of anxiety, impulse control disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder, to name but a few. The same holds true with depression and compulsive overeating; they frequently go hand-in-hand, and understandably so.

Naturally, the question always remains: which disorder came first? Typically, it is depression, but it can go both ways.

Compulsive overeating has three definable parts, and the ways in which depression overlaps are clear.

Habitual Overeating

This type of food consumption is exactly what it sounds like: an individual simply eats out of habit. Little thought is given to the behavior. If the food is in front of them, it is eaten. Consumption is rarely predicated on hunger or desire for the food.

Are all habitual eaters depressed? No, but a correlation can be made when understanding the components of depression, such as isolation, sedentary lifestyle due to lack of energy or motivation, or a loss of joy in previously enjoyed activities. When these conditions are present, an individual may surround themselves with food.

Overeating To Relieve a Negative Emotional State

Depression is a profoundly negative emotional state. There is no happiness, no delight in anything.  Every day is like the previous day: defined by misery.

An individual might turn to food to provide temporary relief, distraction or a modicum of positivity in their life.

Overeating Despite Adverse Consequences

Unless an individual has an extremely high metabolism, excessive eating will produce certain negative consequences.

Woman struggling with compulsive eating

The unseen medical effects include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, potential diabetes, and overwhelming fatigue. The highly observable consequence is weight gain, possibly obesity.

This strikes directly at a person’s self-esteem, self-confidence and body image. The shame is immense and depression can often result.

If depression is the primary diagnosis, it may be due to myriad factors.

More and more, we see that a predisposition to clinical depression can be genetic; often, it occurs due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Additionally, it can result from trauma in one’s life. And what we know about depression quite definitively is that depression leads to more depression—depressive thoughts and behaviors just encourage more of the same.  It is the disorder that keeps on giving.  

Importance of Professional Eating Disorder Treatment

Woman with arms up

Regardless of origin, an individual with depression who has not received treatment will often turn to any possible solution. This can include food, typically calorie-dense food, often referred to as hyper-palatable food. These foods are the go-to because they boost the serotonin level in the brain and serve as a mood elevator. Unfortunately, the lift is temporary and the subsequent crash is harsh.

The most critical aspect of treating depression and compulsive overeating, is to do it simultaneously. To address either one without the other is inadequate treatment. Most severe depression, at least at the outset, is treated with medication. The person’s unhealthy relationship with food must also be dealt with and new skills must be developed to cope with emotional pain.   

No matter how severe a disorder or addiction is, help is always available. If you are currently struggling, please get the help you need to heal through professional eating disorder treatment that concurrently addresses your underlying depression.

Melissa ONeillAbout the Author: Melissa O’Neill, LCSW, Director of Program Development at Timberline Knolls

Melissa’s role involves collaborating with others to create the vision and curriculum for all group programming offered at TK. She also clinically supervises the talented specialists who facilitate groups all over campus.

Early in her career, Melissa spent time in residential care, working with children with significant trauma histories. She then ran a substance abuse IOP followed by several years in private practice. She also managed an IOP/PHP program for Eating Disorders and Mood Disorders. At Timberline she started as a Primary Therapist, followed by serving as a clinical lead.

Melissa received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Vanderbilt University. She earned her Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Illinois. Melissa is a member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published On July 16, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 16, 2017.
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