Displacing the Displacement

“I need a drink” is probably one of the most frequently heard statements in the language, and the reason why a person feels the “need” for a drink is to eradicate stress.

Of course, many other substances can offer the illusion of serving the same purpose. With heavy downers, the person can zone out or pass out, and avoid experiencing stress — or any other sensation — for many hours at a time. With uppers or stimulants, like amphetamines, the person can create so much busyness and so many superficial distractions, that the original causes of stress are buried under a ton of pointless activity.

Maintaining a habit is, in itself, quite stressful. Where to get the stuff, how to pay for it, hiding the habit from others, quieting their suspicions, concealing the physical deterioration that inevitably follows, pretending to try to quit when a true intention is totally absent — all these activities and situations are very stressful too. For someone to discover that substance use actually exacerbates the very problems they hoped to escape can be a crushing disappointment that unavoidably leads to an even worse place.

Going nowhere

Not surprisingly, eventually it all catches up, and a heavy price is demanded. When the supposedly stress-alleviating addiction takes hold, there are consequences — like academic failure, job loss, divorce, bankruptcy, physical deterioration, endangerment of others, arrest, criminal charges, public shame, alienation of friends and family members, and so forth — all of which serve to just pile on the pressure and the suffering. And that is the inescapable “catch-22” of it all. Addiction inevitably causes even more problems and more stress.

Obesity gets involved because eating is one of the most obvious and available displacement behaviors. Eating, sleeping, and grooming are all natural drives, and useful and beneficial activities, until they are not. Picking bugs out of the hair is fine; pulling out the hair itself is taking things too far. A normal amount of sleep is necessary for health; sleeping 12 hours a day to escape a challenging life situation is obviously counterproductive.

Consuming enough calories to keep the body operating at peak functionality is obviously desirable; but when it’s a displacement behavior, and no longer a reasonable response to a natural, healthy drive, then eating is a problem.

Personal situations

For young people, school is one of the most frequent and obvious sources of stress. For older people, the big problem is often the job, or the lack of a job, and either one can make a person feel desperate and push them to look for something, anything, that will alleviate the misery.

And then, there are personal relationships. Often in a marriage, one partner realizes that the status quo is untenable. But like an animal faced with the choice between “fight or flight,” the person realizes that neither leaving nor staying can promote their well-being. If they leave, they will be broke and lose their kids. If they stay, they will be wretched.

(To be continued…)

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

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.

Food & Health Resources