Scientists have been researching the link between stress, cortisol and weight. Because addiction and stress are related, scientists have been wondering if a similar relationship exists between stress and food.
The research is showing that people use drugs and food to self-medicate when they are living in situations which pose an extreme threat to the self. The 2007 paper, Stress, eating and the reward system by Tanja C. Adam, Elissa S. Epel of the University of California, San Francisco, Department of Psychiatry found that not all stressful situations create the conditions that induce an individual to eat or take drugs.
Chronic anxiety of the kind that is perceived as a direct threat to the self including situations of embarrassment and social rejection have the greatest potential to result in addiction or stress disorders.
Because we all have limits to the amount of pain we can handle and because we cannot be in severe pain and still function, any individual in a situation of chronic extreme stress will seek a way to survive and function. If a change of scenery is not possible, that individual will look for alternatives. If there is so way to change the situation, the individual suffering from severe anxiety will often turn to a substance to handle their pain. In effect they are medicating their distress.
Once the individual successfully medicates the anxiety of a negative situation, a feedback loop is activated that reinforces the activity, paving the way to a food or substance addiction. Essentially a reward system has been activated; it effectively anesthetizes the suffering individual and reinforces a negative habit to relieve a negative situation.
Highly sensitive people are particularly susceptible to addiction and eating disorders because they are so sensitive to pain both in themselves and others. Their natural empathy makes it more difficult for them to handle chronic, extreme situations. Because long term highly negative stress creates changes to the feedback loops that regulate the body, highly sensitive people may develop biological imbalances that need to be corrected.
The disturbed feedback loops caused by chronic, severe anxiety destabilize the bodies’ internal balancing mechanisms including cortisol and insulin regulation. When an individual attempts to correct their behavior they are faced with a double whammy. If the individual is overweight and starts a diet, not only do they lose the substance that provided comfort and incur physical discomfort but they also have higher levels of the anxiety they were avoiding. So they have to deal with the lifestyle change and its discomfort as well as the return of the internal and external stressors that were creating the problem in the first place.
In some situations, that can seem like an overwhelming problem to deal with. An individual who is fully aware of the situation has a greater chance of developing successful strategies to handle their anxiety and maintain a healthy eating regimen than someone who tackles the undesired weight without realizing the causes of the problem. This is true of any stress-related addiction.
For highly sensitive people, having effective anxiety minimization strategies can make it possible for them to be successful in eliminating the unhealthy substances used for self medication. There are numerous herbs and effective health practices that can help, as well as medication for severe stress and anxiety disorders. All of these alternatives offer HSPs more relief than substances that can endanger one’s life.