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The Link Between Disordered Eating and Substance Use in Girls

The Link Between Disordered Eating and Substance Use in Girls

The Link Between Disordered Eating and Substance Use in Girls 1707 2560 The Solstice Team

Many girls and assigned female at birth who struggle with substance use, particularly alcohol use, often struggle with disordered eating. Both issues are related to attempts to control what they consume, as they have a direct impact on how they feel physically. Some researchers propose that both food and substances can become addictive patterns, measured by preoccupation, cravings, and a “lack of self-control.” Even though both issues share common features, many specialty treatment programs are not designed to address both issues. 

How common is the link between disordered eating and substance use?

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, up to 50% of individuals with disordered eating patterns have also experimented with substances, compared to 9% of the general population. Additionally, up to 35% of people who use substances also struggle with disordered eating, compared to 3% of the general population. Sometimes, one behavior starts before the other, but in many cases, they develop around the same time. 

Eating disorders and substance abuse, like many other mental health issues, share similar risk factors. While boys may be more likely to struggle with externalizing behaviors, like aggression, that result from emotional issues, girls and assigned female at birth are more likely to turn to self-destructive behaviors, like disordered eating and experimenting with substances. 

Why the overlap between these addictive behaviors?

  • Coping with underlying feelings of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and guilt
  • Preoccupation with food, substances, and body image
  • Some teens turn to substances to change their appetite or to reduce their anxiety around food
  • Rituals around the addictive behavior
  • Loss of control over behavior over time
  • Both associated with a distorted perception of self
  • Sacrificing other interests to spend more time engaging in the addictive behavior
  • Both based on trying to change the way their body feels, in terms of wanting to improve their body image and alter their state of mind

Integrative Care for Dual Diagnoses

Recognizing the link between substance use and disordered eating often goes under the radar as many professionals are looking for signs of one issue rather than the other. Most teens experience a variety of mental health issues that may overlap in some ways, rather than a single problem with a clear-cut solution. Because of how symptoms overlap, it is important to take a whole-person approach to improve teens’ overall wellbeing. Just focusing on a specific type of behavior problem ignores that risk factors for one issue are often similar for other types of behavior problems. 

“If you don’t treat issues simultaneously, there’s the potential for symptom substitution. For example, when a teen does not have access to substances, their disordered eating patterns may escalate and vice versa,” explains Jaime Palmer, the Executive Clinical Director at Solstice RTC. “In order to address both issues successfully, we try to separate addictive behaviors from underlying issues and encourage teens to dig into potential root causes. Instead of focusing on behavioral change as the primary goal, our goal becomes empowering teens to change the way they view themselves and their ability to succeed without negative coping mechanisms.”

Individualized treatment plans that aim to help teens heal in multiple areas of their lives may involve: 

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy targets emotional regulation, distress tolerance
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy targets exposure, psychological flexibility and committed action
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy targets relapse prevention
  • Trauma Focused-therapy includes EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Solstice RTC Can Help 

Solstice RTC is a groundbreaking residential treatment center for girls, ages 14 to 18. Our girls and assigned female at birth often grapple with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD, and other emotional or behavioral problems when they come to us. Through a unique combination of therapeutic programs based upon both traditional and holistic mental health treatment, we treat our clients with age and gender specific techniques. We strive to empower teenage people with the ability to believe in themselves and provide the tools and motivation required to instill these beliefs for life.

For more information about how we help with disordered eating and substance use, please contact us at (866) 278-3345.