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Eating Your Feelings: the Psychology Behind Pica

For starters: what is it?

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  • Photo Credit: Åaker / Unsplash

It’s late at night and you’re craving a midnight snack. There’s nothing appealing in the fridge or the pantry, but there’s something a bit more outside of the norm you’re in the mood for anyway. Perhaps it’s paper, clay, or even dirt. Whatever it may be, it surely isn’t nutritional, nor does it seem "normal." In fact, it may be a sign of a psychological disorder known as pica.

Pica is traditionally categorized by a desire to consume substances that lack little to absolutely no nutrition. These substances can range from hair to feces to chemicals such as bleach. The disorder most often occurs in small children, pregnant women, and individuals with intellectual disabilities. Anyone who has seen an episode of My Strange Addiction has likely witnessed an individual afflicted with this disorder. 

While pica has been made into a spectacle through television programming, its negative impact on the body cannot be emphasized enough. People who are diagnosed with the disorder often have gastrointestinal troubles and sustain substantial long-term internal injuries, especially when chemicals are involved. 

Pica is usually temporary, with the urge to consume strange objects disappearing as quickly as it arrived, but that’s not always the case. In fact, in 2011, it was reported that Florida resident Adele Edwards had been living with pica for 21 years.

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By the time of her diagnosis, Edwards had been consuming the foam inside her couch cushions for over two decades. She stated that she went through the equivalent of one throw cushion a week. Doctors were astounded that she kept up the habit for years without suffering from severe gastrointestinal troubles. As it turned out, Edwards had an iron deficiency, with her blood containing only half the amount of iron that it should. Edwards took an iron supplement, which helped to curb, but not entirely halt her cravings.

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  • Photo Credit: Dan Meyers / Unsplash

Adele Edwards’ case is one of several that have been featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction. A deep dive into the television series reveals that there are more people than you may have guessed who appear to suffer from this disorder.

For instance, there’s an episode about a man who eats lightbulbs, a woman who swallows her husband’s ashes, and a man who enjoys ingesting plastic bags. On the show, these behaviors are framed as addictions, because most people explain their affinity for eating strange objects as a desire that is difficult to resist.

One major cause of pica is stress, with the behavior linked to attempts to self-comfort. It makes sense when you think of fingernail biting or lip chewing. While these habits don’t substantiate a pica diagnosis, they are astute examples of how stress can lead people to form self-destructive habits. A great deal of the stars on TLC’s My Strange Addiction unpack their own psychological trauma and stressors when the show offers them the opportunity to delve into underlying reasons for their “addictions.”

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Possibly the most famous case of pica was reported by Forbes in 2017. A hospital in India discovered that a man had swallowed a grand total of 263 coins, 150 iron nails, and additional bizarre foreign substances. Apparently, he only sought medical treatment after experiencing severe abdominal pain, but he’d been walking around with approximately 15 pounds of metal in his stomach for an unspecified length of time. It is hard to believe that anyone could manage to swallow iron nails voluntarily, let alone do so without puncturing the esophagus or stomach.

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  • Photo Credit: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Clearly, pica can be dangerous, which begs the question: is it treatable? In cases where patients may develop lead poisoning from eating paint chips, some doctors recommend chelation therapy, which removes heavy metals from the bloodstream. If the pica is a result of a nutritional deficiency, various supplements and medications can be prescribed to adjust the deficiency. Doctors also usually recommend a psychiatric evaluation in order to determine whether the pica stems from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If this is the case, then therapy and/or medication can be helpful.

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On the other hand, some versions of pica are relatively harmless. For instance, people who compulsively chew ice may be diagnosed with the disorder. Aside from irritating sensitive teeth or potentially unsettling others with one’s incessant crunching, there’s nothing inherently wrong with chewing ice.

Pica remains a little-understood disorder that fascinates many people. One look through the My Strange Addiction  episode catalogue is enough to see why.

Sources: Daily Mail, Forbes

Featured photo: Åaker / Unsplash