This is the fourth post in a series where I discuss my top tips for quitting binging. These tips – or practices – have worked for me and many others in long-term recovery. In the first three tips, I talked about how important it is to eliminate food-related guilt (click here to read the first tip), to put weight loss on the backburner (click here), and to eat with mindfulness (click here). This fourth tip discusses the essential question of figuring out why you binge.
So, why do you binge? How can you find out?
The answer is different for everyone, and it may be fairly simple or fairly complicated. Or maybe you (like me) will discover that the reasons are actually much more complicated than you thought. But one thing’s for sure – if you can’t identify the reasons for binging, then long-term recovery will not be possible. I have two main suggestions for exploring these reasons.
- The first is to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor who can help you explore the emotional and cognitive issues underlying the binge urges.
- The second is to keep a diary of your feelings and thoughts before, during, and after eating.
Ideally, these two practices work well together, but if you can’t afford professional help right now, the diary strategy can also provide a lot of insight! In the diary, I recommend including your thoughts and feelings (see this post to learn about the important difference between thoughts and feelings) as well as any situational issues (for example, your child had a tantrum). If you can write in the diary before, during, and after a binge, that is great! But it’s perfectly fine to just write in the diary after the binge has already happened. Even if you can’t make yourself write in the diary before a binge, it does help to just give yourself a little bit of space to think about why you want to binge, before you actually do it.
Now, let’s talk about the different reasons for binging.
- Oftentimes the reasons are emotional, even if you can’t immediately identify an emotional cause. Using the diary and practicing identifying feelings in everyday life can help you begin to get an idea of what triggers your binges – including feelings such as boredom, loneliness, anger, sadness or even happiness; situational issues such as family problems; or destructive thought patterns. Some people use binging to fill a void in their lives, and it’s worth exploring what that void is really about.
- Some issues might not be obvious in everyday life, because they are much more deeply embedded into your thought patterns and experience as an individual. One very common underlying cause is related to the diet mentality that most of us have adopted throughout our lives; indeed, it’s so ingrained in us that we may not even realize it’s a problem at first … in fact, many of us have mistakenly believed that dieting is the solution to our problem, not realizing that it’s actually the cause. But the diet mentality and the obsession with weight, far from helping us, actually causes binging in most cases! You don’t have to be actively dieting to be greatly influenced by diet mentality … many of us don’t actually go on diets, but we are still very affected by diet mentality. If you ARE depriving your body through dieting (not eating enough), your binging could be biological – our bodies have strong survival instincts that tell us to eat A LOT if food seems scarce – this crucial biological instinct is meant to keep us from starving (even if we are, in reality, far from actually starving).
In addition to eating in response to emotional triggers such as boredom or depression, my binging was greatly driven by the need to escape from perfectionism and diet mentality … it was all about wanting the forbidden, letting loose, breaking the diet rules, FEELING FREE! Oftentimes, I didn’t even have anything specific in my mind; I just wanted takeout because I had considered it “bad” or off limits. Toward the end of my binging days, I would tell my husband to go get “takeout” but then I couldn’t think of a single thing that sounded good! How messed up is that – clearly, it wasn’t about the food, but it was more about the IDEA of it – and what I expected it to do for me.
- Other more deep-seated underlying issues relate to past traumas (often from childhood, but not always) and other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar and others. In those cases, it is often crucial to seek help from a counselor or therapist, especially in cases of severe traumas. But if professional help simply isn’t an option, you may find help in a support group, whether online or face to face, or in self-help books and other resources.
- You might notice that I didn’t list “trigger foods” as a cause of binging. That’s because I don’t believe foods are actually the triggers. I think that the reasons for binging always run much deeper than the food. Even when it appears that only certain foods are involved in binging, it is likely that the years or decades of diet mentality have given those certain foods an emotional charge or forbidden appeal. The process of intuitive eating is extremely helpful in overcoming the diet mentality and issues surrounding particular foods!
- Sometimes you can’t identify a precise cause, even if you’ve been practicing identifying emotions consistently. That is OK! And sometimes the cause might be that you were enjoying the experience or the taste – perhaps the binge was motivated by the desire to seek positive emotion (e.g., happiness, enjoyment, pleasure) from the experience rather than to avoid a negative emotion. Or it could be motivated by the desire to avoid the unpleasant negative emotion that arises when you try to stop eating, an experience that is pleasurable! That can be a really subtle feeling. Or perhaps it was motivated by restriction or rebellion – sometimes trying NOT to binge can be a binge trigger in itself!
I think it’s useful to pinpoint the causes of binges but only to a certain extent … sometimes we go overboard trying to analyze things that it’s actually counterproductive! In other words, it’s definitely a great step in recovery to learn to identify binge triggers, as long as you don’t drive yourself crazy doing so.
Ultimately, binging is an attempt to meet a need. To stop binging, we must identify what that need is and how we can address it in a healthier way (sounds like a future blog post!). Once you’ve identified those needs and underlying causes, you’ll be in a better position to explore other healthier coping methods, and avoiding binging will no longer feel like an agonizing battle of willpower, making recovery MUCH easier to maintain in the long term.
What needs are you attempting to meet in your disordered eating behaviors? How did you find the causes behind your binging, or how do you plan to start doing so?