“Why can’t he just stop eating?” “Why can’t she have some self-control and quit drinking?” Contrary to popular stereotypes, mental health conditions like binge eating disorder and alcohol addiction are not the result of weakness or a lack of willpower.
“These conditions are complex, with underlying biological, psychological, and social components for most people,” says Erich Kauffman, LCPC, addictions therapist at The Retreat.
Terri Griffith, PsyD, clinical coordinator for The Center for Eating Disorders, works with people to overcome binge eating disorder—a condition that is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined.
“For people with binge eating disorder, the areas of the brain that help with emotion regulation, impulse control, or signaling hunger and fullness don’t work effectively, making it difficult for them to stop binging,” she says. “Binging is also often a way to soothe themselves.”
To help make the biological nature of addiction understandable to patients, Kauffman explains, “Neural pathways associated with addiction can be seen as hijacking the part of the brain that oversees decision-making and conscious willpower.” Furthermore, after long-term heavy use, some people become physically dependent on a substance and need the drug or alcohol to function. This dependence requires medical intervention to safely stop the use of the substance.
The power of powerlessness
Not only does willpower alone not work, but the first step toward recovery is a hard one—to admit powerlessness over the addiction or impulse.
“Trying to use willpower alone to overcome these conditions is not only ineffective, but it can be a hindrance,” Kauffman says. “Many people I work with are very successful and driven in their lives, making it harder for them to accept they can’t overcome the addiction on their own. People feel shame and failure, but admitting they are not in control of their substance use opens the door to ask for help.”
To begin recovery, Griffith suggests individuals work with a therapist who specializes in their particular addiction or disorder. In treatment, they’ll develop new coping strategies to overcome urges, implement lifestyle changes that support behavioral change, and tap into their support systems, among other strategies.
Griffith says understanding these disorders will help correct the misunderstanding that they result from a lack of willpower.
“If someone had a medical diagnosis like cancer, you wouldn’t tell them that willpower could cure them,” Griffith says. “Eating disorders and alcohol addiction should be taken just as seriously. Understanding them better will help remove the stigma.”
Erich Kauffman, LCPCAddictions Counselor, The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt