The brain’s reward pathway is stimulated by food, alcohol and drugs which all trigger the reward center of the brain by releasing dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter that brings pleasure when in excess and depression when depleted. Whether it is binging on sugary food, drinking wine to relieve stress or injecting heroin, a surge of dopamine creates a pleasurable sensation, which is then followed by the need to seek the same feeling over and over again, until a viscous cycle of destructive behaviors followed by reward is met. Impulsive personalities and individuals with a history of anxiety and depression are more prone to be overcome by addiction but anyone is at risk if they continue to engage in pleasure seeking behaviors. Once an addiction is established, it is difficult to take back control, especially as an individual comes to need the relief that is found from artificial stimulation.  Even in the face of devastating health consequences that come hand-in-hand with drug and alcohol abuse or eating disorders, it takes renewed effort to break the circuit of a mind that has been hijacked by an addiction. Although the psychology behind addiction for both eating disorders and substance abuse may be similar, the treatment for each disorder is different with some overlapping components. So for individuals who are looking for treatment for their eating disorder or their substance abuse disorder, what are the main differences in eating disorder treatment and addiction treatment?

Eating disorder treatment

The main goal of eating disorder treatment is to uncover the underlying triggers associated with the disorder and to normalize eating behaviors in order to restore the body and establish stability in the individual’s life. A multifactorial treatment team that includes physicians, therapists and dietitians are responsible for providing psychotherapy and nutritional counseling in groups and individual settings. Eating disorder treatment also aims to help individuals in recovery develop an effective skill set for coping rather than falling back on the eating disorder behaviors themselves after they leave therapy. Relapse rates are high and studies have found that it can take years for an individual to successful recover from an eating disorder and therefore establishing a support group, practicing coping skills and understanding the individualized triggers are important and necessary in order to recover from an eating disorder.

Substance abuse disorder treatment

Addiction treatment focuses on strategies to prohibit the use of the addictive substances and to rewire the brain to prevent further cravings. Unlike eating disorder recovery, nutrition counseling is usually not required in addiction treatment however detoxification is. Detoxification refers to eliminating the addictive substance from the body, which usually takes 24-48 hours depending on the specific substance of abuse. Medications can be used to aid in symptom relief depending on the abused substance. A treatment team for addiction usually consists of physicians, therapists and counselors who aid in psychotherapy, support groups and 12 step treatment programs to address the underlying triggers and to curb cravings in order to prevent relapse. Medications can be used to help reduce cravings and prevent relapse, depending on the specific drug of abuse. For example, treatment for opioid, benzodiazepine and alcohol abuse includes medications that help prevent cravings for these specific substances. Once acute treatment is completed, a support group and positive coping skills are necessary in order to succeed in long-term recovery.

Whether you or a loved one are riddled with an eating disorder or a substance abuse disorder, it is important to seek professional help in order to learn coping skills and develop a support system. Although eating disorder treatment and addiction treatment differ, treatments for mental health, substance abuse and eating disorders are all centered around finding a better you.

Lasting recovery can start today. Please reach out. We are here for you, and with you.


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