Stress and Displacement Activity

Slide 19 Behavioral addiction eatingStress triggers the fight-or-flight reflex. Laboratory rats can’t flee, and have reasons of their own for not fighting, but they still want to feel better. Given the opportunity, they will take drugs or use food as a drug. For the most part, stressed-out children are also unable to flee. They can fight, but our society frowns on it, except under certain conditions.

Unfortunately, not every child has the opportunity to play football or swim or learn Mixed Martial Arts. With the advent of “helicopter parenting” and the dearth of “free-range kids,” youngsters often don’t have the same freedom to blow off steam as was enjoyed by earlier generations. The physical activity that has historically relieved stress is not as widely available to kids now.

Anxiety and emotional malaise can be channeled into video games, where imaginary violent activity can momentarily let a child feel like some hostile energy has been vented, but this is an illusion. Unresolved frustrations with the game can add even more stress. And again, some kids don’t even have video games. However, most children, at least in the developed nations, can lay hands on something to eat, and they do, leading to the astronomical childhood obesity rates of which we have heard so much.

Pain, Stress, and Eating

In the name of science, the rat in the picture on this page is experiencing the irritation of a paper clip affixed to its tail. For the full narrative about behavioral addiction eating, please consult Dr. Pretlow’s most recent presentation, “Obesity Treatment Using the Addiction Model.”

To make a long story short, some notable rat experiments have made use of both hyper-palatable, high-calorie food and boring generic rat chow. The paper clip-stressed rodents don’t even require a fancy menu. Even if they only have plain old rat chow, they will overeat it compulsively. This displacement behavior allows them to feel better.

Finding Serenity

Life can be better without resorting to the extremes of fight or flight, neither of which generally turns out well anyhow. Remember the request in the prayer that originated with AA: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The rat with the pinched tail can’t change his circumstances to end his problem. He deals with it by eating, which is a distraction and offers a pleasurable sensation to counteract the unpleasant sensation.

Now just suppose this rat had other ways to achieve serenity, besides eating? Better yet, suppose it could learn the skills necessary to remove the paper clip from its tail? Unlike rats, humans have other ways to quell anxiety, and can even learn techniques to get the proverbial paper clip off their tails so anxiety won’t be experienced in the first place. Some of the tools people can use are aversive stimuli, relaxation techniques, alternate behaviors, keeping hands busy while watching TV, trigger avoidance, boredom prevention, distractions, journaling, and distress tolerance. This is what the W8Loss2Go smartphone app is all about.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obesity Treatment Using the Addiction Model,”, April 2015
Image: Slide #19 Behavioral Addiction Eating

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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