Getting a Grip on Compulsive Behaviors
Many suffer from some form of compulsive behavior. And there's many types. For example: shopping, overeating, hoarding and gambling.
Wikipedia defines compulsive behavior as performing an act persistently and repetitively without it leading to an actual reward or pleasure. Compulsive behaviors could be an attempt to make obsessions go away. The act is usually a small, restricted behavior, but not pathologically disturbing. Compulsive behaviors are a need to reduce apprehension caused by internal feelings a person wants to abstain from or control.
Perhaps the most well-known is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It's defined as both a brain and behavior disorder. Most behaviorists believe compulsive behavior is likely excessive activity not connected to the purpose it appears to be directed to.
Compulsive behavior is also associated with compulsive sexual behavior, or a lack of control over it. Most who behave compulsively are poly-addicted, that is, they have more than one compulsion. For example, the compulsive over-eater may also be a shopaholic.
The only cure for compulsive behavior is insight into what drives that behavior. Compulsions are not necessarily a sign of mental illness or serious dysfunction. In fact, they are extremely common. Compulsions are usually a means of avoiding unpleasant realities.
Compulsions are Irrational Actions
Compulsions are irrational actions people have difficulty controlling. They often act counter to a person's conscious will. Individuals may consciously want to live sober, moral lives, but find themselves continuously struggling against compulsions to drink, abuse drugs, or engage in illicit sex. When they do they are often left feeling guilty with low self-esteem.
Compulsions are irrational because they urge people to commit acts they know will be harmful, yet they do them anyway. In compulsive behavior, the conscious mind is engaged in a losing battle with unconscious emotions. When behavior becomes habitual reaching a level they are unable to refrain engaging in it, becomes an addiction.
A person in the grip of a compulsion can understand the feelings expressed by the apostle Paul,
“For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. But I see another law and my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Romans 7:19, 23-24)?
Compulsive behavior is also a feature of the obsessive-compulsive personality. People with this condition exhibit inflexibility and a compulsive drive to achieve perfection. They tend to be obsessively preoccupied with order, scheduling, details, and rules. Those prone to OCD are wide-open to a number of compulsive behaviors, such as being a workaholic, controlling addiction, compulsive overspending, hoarding, and extreme religious legalism.
When anxiety and other emotional issues come to a certain point their behavior often takes on a bizarre character. Notice, there are two components, obsession and compulsion. Obsessions are irrational thinking patterns; compulsion are irrational patterns of actions.
So, an individual might become obsessed with thoughts of contamination, producing a compulsion of repetitive hand washing. Or, a Christian might become filled with doubts about their salvation and acceptance by God. This could result in continuously repeating religious phrases, or self punishing acts. OCD is a form of erotic mental illness requiring professional psychiatric treatment.
Compulsions, are not necessarily signs of mental illness. They are notoriously common. Most can identify with one form or another. They are usually a means of avoiding an unpleasant reality. Compulsive people avoid dealing with actual unconscious conflicts, like guilt or painful childhood memories. Once they face these emotional issues, their grip over them usually disappears.
You can't simply quit eating like a smoker quits smoking or a drinker quits drinking. Every person's need for food is highly individualized so where do you draw the line? How can you know if a certain amount of food is just right or too much? Viewed in this light it becomes difficult to ascertain if one has an overeating compulsion.
Many on the obese side tell themselves “Yes I'm overweight, but it's not because I overeat. I'm just a big boned.” Or “I have a slow metabolism.” Another common reply is, “It's genetic, my whole family is overweight.” True, there are some with biological reasons for being overweight. However, those in this category represent only a small minority. The vast majority have an overeating disorder. Compulsive over eaters need to gain insight into these emotional issues to gain control over their eating patterns.
Unfortunately, many Christians who have never had a weight problem tend to blame it on the sin of gluttony. As far as they are concerned this is something afflicting non-Christians or those not spiritually strong. Even so, there is much more involved.
Compulsive overeating grows out of deep emotional issues of pain and guilt. And more often than not it's usually connected to abuse or some other past traumatic event. The issue isn't how much someone weighs, but why they overeat. Are they physically hungry or trying to satisfy an emotional need. Compulsive over eaters are usually not aware of the real reasons they eat.
For compulsive over eaters food is an addiction. Just as their alcoholic counterparts build emotional dependence upon alcohol to feel good inside, compulsive over eaters become dependent upon food for the same reason.
This is why diet books, diet drinks, diet pills and programs usually fail. They may attack the symptom of being overweight but not the root causes. It's imperative to identify and understand the reasons why or they will never be free of an emotionally dependent relationship with food.
Over eaters must understand the dynamics causing their eating compulsion. This isn't to say all compulsive eaters binge. Some tend to eat too much at the dinner table, while others do most of their eating between meals, snacking throughout the day. But the most common form of compulsive overeating is binging.
As with most addictions the condition tends to be chronic and progressive. It may begin slowly, perhaps even unnoticeable. But over time it eventually becomes a full-blown addiction. Not all follow this pattern. They may be very disciplined dieters most of the time. Then, like an alcoholic, they will, “fall off the wagon” and indulge themselves. Sometimes this is followed by a period of moderation, but the pattern generally repeats itself.
Then, you have the binge and purge crowd. These are people who stuff themselves and then self induce vomiting, or abuse laxatives to expel food they have eaten. This is a dangerous practice that can result in extremely serious health problems, even death.
The Role of Denial
Denial is an inability to see the truth about your self. The more serious the addiction, the stronger the denial. It's impossible to take control of any eating habits until one admits the truth. One form of denial is a tendency to approach issues with unrealistic beliefs such as a “magic pill” that can solve the problem. “If I can just find the right diet or pill, I can whip this problem.” See if you recognize any of the following denial statements:
I can lose this weight anytime I want to.
I eat just like everyone else. My metabolism is slow and besides my family is all large boned.
I just can't lose weight after a pregnancy.
I don't see any sense in dieting. If my weight doesn't get me, cancer or something else will.
Statements such as these keep the addiction cycle going. As Jesus said, “the truth will set you free.”
Naturally, big business has taken advantage of the situation. Many have made fortunes selling fad diet books, and countless diet pills. Unfortunately most don't deliver on their promises.
12 Reasons for Compulsive Overeating
Compulsive overeating is a response to external pressures and internal urges that arouse food cravings. They rarely have anything to do with physical hunger. Following are the 12 most common reasons:
Cultural pressures. We are constantly surrounded by cultural pressures, messages from the world around us, especially the advertising world. Advertisers for restaurant chains and snack foods encourage us to eat, and then eat some more. On the other hand, slim and trim gorgeous models, try selling their solutions. We are surrounded by messages triggering our desire to eat, or advertisements encouraging us to diet by playing upon our self guilt.
A subconscious desire for protection against love and intimacy. There is actually a survival instinct working in the subconscious mind. We have all seen people who have built a protective barrier of fat around themselves, and in most cases it's in response to some traumatic event in their lives.
A craving for immediate gratification. We are all born self-centered. If we grow up with loving, disciplining parents, we usually grow out of this stage. But if we are not raised in a loving home with parents who set a good example, most likely we will continue in an immature pattern of selfishness. We will demand instant gratification, wanting everything immediately. This often leads to an exaggerated sense of competition. Even children who are otherwise cooperative will aggressively compete for food with their siblings.
Using food as a tranquilizer. Each time a person eats, the brain produces chemicals called endorphins, which are natural painkillers, relaxants, and pleasure stimulators. They were designed by God to help the human body deal with pain and stress. Certain activities, such as laughter, eating, and aerobic exercise stimulates the production of these chemicals.
Using food to avoid facing anxiety and truths about oneself. Anxiety is a generalized sense of unease. Often, people feel anxious on a conscious level because of emotional issues on a subconscious level. The anxiety a person feels may actually be fear of discovering the truth about hidden memories, thoughts, emotions, or motives. For some this triggers compulsive overeating.
Using food to punish oneself or others. People sometimes become angry with themselves over some sin, mistake, or failure. Disgusted with themselves for having had an affair or losing a job for example, they respond by making themselves overweight. They find it less painful to hate themselves from being overweight than two confront their true anger. The weight then, becomes the scapegoat. This is a form of using compulsive overeating as a defense against anxiety and facing the truth.
Using food to relieve depression or stress. People who are depressed frequently suffer from repressed anger and an unconscious desire to take revenge against others or themselves. Many are perfectionists who punish themselves for not being perfect. Emotions of resentment and anger cause important brain chemicals such as serotonin to become depleted. These chemicals enable electrical impulses allowing us to think, feel good, etc. When they are depleted, we lose energy, positive mood, and motivation. Therefore it can cause people to gain weight as they become less active. At the opposite extreme, many who develop these chemical depletions actually lose their appetites, some even develop anorexia.
Using food as a weapon of rebellion. Some become so tired and frustrated with trying to live up to a perfect body image or following strict rules dictated by others, they use overeating as a way of asserting their independence.
Using food to express the need to control one's circumstances. Control is a major issue for children of dysfunctional families. In families with alcoholic or abusive parents, children grow scared, wary, and defensive. Since so many aspects of their lives are out of their control, for example, whether or not they will be hit or molested tonight, they look for areas of life where they can experience some measure of control. These patterns remain as they grow older. The outcome can be excessive control of money or hoarding. Ironically many overeaters are over disciplined. They tell themselves, “If only I had more willpower I could make my diet work.” However, willpower isn't the answer. Attempting to solve a problem purely by self-control or forceful will usually results in defeat.
Having a faulty body image. The faulty perception of one's own body can lead a person to compulsively overeat, or in the case of anorexics, under eat. It's amazing the degree to which some are able to disregard what they see in the mirror.
Feelings toward food formed in childhood. People often inherit harmful attitudes about food at the family dinner table. In most families food is part of most celebrations, and there's nothing wrong with that. But for the compulsive eater, virtually anything can become a reason to celebrate.
Using food to satisfy one's hunger for love. Most over eaters use food to satisfy their their need for emotional nurturing. Some feel empty inside because they never received the love they needed as children. Others because of divorce, broken romance, or loss of someone close to them. But food can never satisfy this need.
How to Fill a Hungry Heart
What does your heart truly hunger for? Love and affirmation? Notice, neither of these important ingredients can be picked up with a fork. But these are ingredients you can find, experience, and place in your heart where no one can take them away. You can find love and acceptance from a number of valid, healthy sources. First, meditate in Scripture passages speaking about God's unconditional love for you.
Second, find a group of people, perhaps a small Bible study group, where you will be unconditionally loved and accepted while working on your recovery. Thirdly, make a commitment to love and forgive yourself for any mistakes you have made. Blame and guilt are the prime culprits destroying us by making us feel unloved and unacceptable.
You can be affirmed in several ways. First, replace any negative messages you may have received with positive ones about yourself. You may have been subjected to negative messages throughout your childhood for example, “You never do anything right!” Messages such as these must be erased and replaced with new messages.
Next, restructure your lifestyle and relationships in a way reflecting an affirmation of your personal worth. If you have felt unworthy to enjoy an exciting sexual relationship with your spouse, give yourself permission to ask your spouse about them. If you felt unworthy to be adequately paid at work, give yourself permission to ask for a raise.
Freedom from Compulsive Overeating
There are 10 basic steps to freedom from compulsive overeating:
Identify all your addictions. Most who behave compulsively are poly-addicted. They may also be a shopaholic or aggression prone. Take stock of your compulsions and addictions By getting in touch with various substances and behaviors you use to cover up your emotional issues.
Break the habit of denial. Denial is a valid defense mechanism God has given us to help us through the first terrible shock of grief and loss. But denial becomes unhealthy when it settles in and you use it to whitewash reality and that obscures your pain. You must face your addictions and say, “I'm not just big boned. I'm not just a little overweight. I have a serious food addiction, and it's out of my control.”
Identify your trigger foods and situations. What foods do you run to for emotional comfort, relaxation, cover up pain? Every addiction has its “triggers,” situations causing addicts to have an almost irresistible urge to abuse their addictive agents. Once you have identified these “triggers,” avoid them. Plan trips to avoid going near restaurants that have tempted you in the past. Instead of going to the movie theater, rent and view them at home, avoiding the tempting smell of popcorn . It's also advisable not to go grocery shopping on empty stomach.
Enlist your family's support. One of the most common causes of diet failure is family sabotage: the husband who brings home his wife's favorite ice cream, children who begged for fresh-baked cookies, the mother who prepares the dieter's favorite fattening food.
Are you dieting for the right motives? Don't start a diet to win love or approval. Don't diet for your husband, your mother, or your boyfriend. You must be doing this for yourself, or you will be subconsciously angry and resentful toward a person you are dieting for.
Set reasonable goals. Some surveys suggest as many as 90% of Americans consider themselves overweight. In fact, only approximately 25% are considered significantly obese.
Get a doctor's approval before dieting. A diet is a lifestyle change, and any lifestyle change, even a healthy one, puts stress on a body. Therefore it's important you had a physical examination before going on any diet plan. Risk factors to watch for include heart attack, stroke history, blood clotting history, liver or kidney disease, cancer, acute psychiatric disorder, and diabetes. Although being overweight is less healthy than weight-loss, these disorders subject patients to a much greater risk. It's important such patients be monitored to ensure a particular diet doesn't result in dangerous nutritional imbalances.
Understand why past diets haven't worked. Some popular diet programs have been unbalanced, unhealthy, or simply outrageous. For example, the Beverly Hills Diet suggested: “Don't eat potatoes; they turn to vodka in your stomach.” On the other hand, others such as Weight Watchers offer a sensible, reduced-calorie method of losing weight.
Be sure you truly want to be free. In order to achieve long-term mastery over your weight, you must want it enough to be willing to break the emotional and spiritual bonds keeping you captive.
Understand the medical risks of being overweight. Medical complications of obesity include:
Heart attack, and heart failure
Colon, breast and uterine cancer
Joint, tendon, and back problems
Gallbladder and pancreas problems
Increased surgical risks and premature aging.
Understanding these medical risks can enhance your motivation to lose weight.