The Shopping and Food Connection: An Examination of Hunger Diseases

“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread”
~ George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Have you ever found yourself in a shopping mall, searching, with a slightly pounding heart, for something? Something to wear tonight, tomorrow, or for that next important meeting. Or, is it something yet to be thought of, but you know you need something, or at least feel like you need something. Maybe you just want something new, what is the difference, right? You are just going to get it and then whatever is really going on will go away, maybe not even something tragic or problematic, but your mind and emotional system out of habit urges you to go shopping and get something that will, in turn, whether you know it or not, assist you in also getting rid of something.

Or, maybe you have specific rules about shopping for food? Do you buy a certain brand of cereal? Are you unaware of how much money you spend each month on groceries? Have you ever thought that how you shop for food may be indicative of a more serious process of feeding yourself? Probably not, because in the moment, grocery shopping in your particular way actually makes you feel safe, secure, and in your own skin, so to speak. Going outside of these boundaries feels dangerous, unknown, possibly too anxiety provoking to even allow yourself to know to or to feel because the outcome could be dismal. To you, this makes perfect sense, you have found a system to which you can live and regulate your feelings. To anyone else, you are afraid that this unique and well thought out system would sound crazy. It is not. It is how you have adapted and taught yourself to feed yourself. On the other hand, there may be other paths that you have not trespassed that could be more life affirming and less self destructive.

This is where understanding the process of hunger diseases can be helpful. It is not a basic understanding, so to speak, of the complexity of eating disorders and compulsive shopping. It is comprehensive and psychoanalytic, and helps people come to understand themselves more fully and deeply as well as give light to why both eating disorders and compulsive shopping are so persistent and ‘relapse’ is part of every person’s path. It reveals the intricacies of the attachment process which for every single living person occurs and begins the minute one is born. It illuminates the individual’s blueprint of how feeding oneself is to take place over a life time unless intervention, such as therapy, takes place to make some alterations in the original plan, especially if the blueprint has proven to be amiss in some areas.

Hunger knows no friend but it’s feeder ~

A person suffering from a hunger disease experiences anxiety because he or she knows they want something but cannot allow themselves to really know what it is. This knowing would be too painful to tolerate and hence, the compulsion to starve, feed, or shop becomes a method of soothing. A frantic race to kill off the thought develops within the person and acquiring objects of desire with a ‘magical’ credit card, makes the soothing process easy. Then, once the object(s) is consumed or bought, relief overcomes while at the same time negative thoughts toward the self ensue for doing something so ‘stupid’. A repetitious cycle is created partly because the acquisition provides a transient satisfaction, not a long term satiation, and it fuels the compulsion to buy increasingly. The wanting and anticipation of getting the donut, purse or shoes contains the most pleasure and is done repeatedly. Some people buy the same thing over and over, for example, I was told the other day by a retail manager that she had to interrupt a shopper from buying something because she had already bought that exact item. Another example of repetitious behavior is that of a person who has the compulsion to buy exactly 20 pieces of the same fruit at each grocery store visit whether she needs them or not. She discovered that the act of buying 20 apples created a feeling of safety and soothing that although seemed irrational, what is more important provided her with containment over anxiety that she might not have enough if “something” happened.

Hunger diseases become increasingly severe over time which is reminiscent of addiction. For instance, a severe anorexic loses increasingly weight as her ritualistic eating becomes more outlandish comparable to that of a heroin addict toward getting the next hit. A tolerance to heroin develops and the need for more heroin to accomplish the same effect is required and, in addition, arm veins become incapable of providing a pathway so the addict has to use veins in the foot, breast, and other areas to get the drug in the system. For a compulsive shopper, this kind of behavior can manifest itself in credit card debt, when one card has reached it’s limit, another one is sought, and used to it’s maximum and so on until the damage is so severe that serious debt is what leads a person to seek some form of assistance or at least hit rock bottom and then, get help or start the cycle over again. These are not intellectual problems, they are emotional problems.

Hunger, obviously, can be expressed through other means than just wanting food. Raymond Battegay defines hunger diseases as the emotional problems a person has based on lack of self-esteem, so much that people are driven to possess and consume people and or/things in an addictive manner. However, no matter how much they get, it does not feel like enough. The hunger is insatiable and it is thought that these problems derive from childhood when the child’s hunger for closeness, warmth, and stimuli were either inadequately met or inordinately gratified, triggering a recurrent experience of insatiable hunger, a hole or emptiness, that must be filled with a constant supply of something.

Hunger, love, pain, fear are some of those inner forces which rule the individual’s instinct for self preservation
~ Albert Einstein

Unconsciously creating a system to feed oneself is perseverance in an emotional world that seems scary, unstable and uncertain at times. In trying to overcome an eating disorder or compulsive shopping it is imperative to understand the that system that has been developed is working on some level to create a homeostasis that provides sustenance and if ripped away prematurely leads to ongoing struggles, more severe episodes of acting out and an incomplete comprehension of the original blueprint. By examining the original blueprint one can make the appropriate suggestions and alterations without wiping away the entire system that has been effective for so long. When transitioning a baby from a bottle, do you just take the bottle away and expect the baby to find and drink from a cup? Of course not, you would wean a baby from the bottle, on a schedule that is personal, individual and compassionate toward the baby. Not every baby will respond to withdrawal in the same way so it is important to pay attention to details, reactions and needs of the baby. This is the framework of therapy for hunger diseases in that it is specialized, specific and sensitive to each person who presents with a hunger disease. It allows for individual growth, discovery and empathy while creating an environment that is for the patient to say anything, think anything and feel anything without judgement or agenda by the therapist. In this working relationship, feelings are felt, not pushed away or gotten rid of, thoughts are allowed into the mind and are sometimes expressed, not stopped, and actions are determined by the patient. In this therapeutic way, a mind in the patient is fostered and a self is an able to grow and persevere.

Author's Bio: 

Angela R. Wurtzel, MA, MFT
Certified Eating Disorder Specialist

27 East Victoria Street
Rear Cottage
Santa Barbara CA 93101

1305 Marsh Street
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

(805) 884-9794