If you are a binge eater, you know well the mindless eating routine: you gather your food stash, stand over the sink, and wolf it down. Or maybe you sneak food or even gorge in the car.
The key habit behind binge eating is mindlessness — not being in tune with your feelings and physical sensations in the present moment. Food is the most available, cheapest, socially-sanctioned, mood-altering drug on the market. So think about it: when you binge, you use food to help you dial down stressful feelings by unplugging your mind from the harshness of reality in some way. You're looking for relief and a detour from your emotions, so the more numb the better.
The truth is that binging is an attempt to make ourselves feel better. And of course there's nothing wrong with the goal of self-soothing — it's a healthy intention. But, ultimately, overeating when we are hungry from the heart but not from the stomach is hurtful to our bodies and our spirits.
To break out of a binge we must first become aware of why we resort to overeating to "solve" our problems. As you will be able to tell from my real-life examples below, many people find that trusting food feels safer than trusting people. Food never leaves you, never rejects you, never dies. It is the only relationship where we get to say when, where, and how much. No other relationship complies with our needs so absolutely.
At the New York Center for Eating Disorders, we have diagnosed 15 triggers that provoke binge eating. Most people fit into more than one category, so don't be alarmed if you do too! Awareness is the first step to helping you get a grip.
For every diet you go on, there is an equal and opposite possibility for a binge waiting to pounce. When you deprive yourself by restricting food, it typically causes you to compensate by overeating.
Take Emily, who decided to lose weight before her wedding. After tolerating a low calorie diet for 2 weeks, she found herself binging nonstop to make it up to herself for feeling deprived. I've encountered many individuals like Emily who can relate.
Feelings of inner emptiness and/or not knowing how to keep yourself company is a frequent binge trigger.
Sandra worked a high pressured job and when she came home after work, she felt bored without the constant stimulation of her work. Her refrigerator became her best buddy to relieve her boredom. This is a familiar tale.
Eating out of anger is often described as a way of "stuffing" down feelings: food becomes a stopper that keeps us from discharging "dangerous" feelings like anger.
Karen was furious with her mother-in-law's constant criticism as to how she should treat her husband. Trying to be respectful, she bit her tongue but discharged her anger through nighttime overeating, with much hostile biting and chewing
4. Chronic Physical Pain
Overeating can be a method of trying to distract yourself from pain and to comfort oneself.
Janice suffered from severe monthly menstrual cramps. When the pain flared up, her eating disorder also flared as she attempted to “medicate” her pain with food.
Feeling alone can cause you to reach for food to keep yourself company.
Amanda lived alone and when she didn't have plans to go out with her friends after work, she stuffed herself to relieve her loneliness.
When you have too much responsibility on your “plate,” you may seek a diversion through overeating.
Sara was caring for young twins and her mother with breast cancer. When she needed a "time out" she would find herself overeating as an oasis to being overwhelmed.
Many people suffering from depression seek comfort or companionship through overeating.
After Loren's beloved cat died, she found herself binging to quell her pain. She was depressed both at the loss of her cat and the embarrassment when people would say, "But it's only a cat." Food offered unconditional love and acceptance.
Envy, greed, and jealousy are bitter feelings to swallow. People turn to food to camouflage and bury these difficult feelings.
When Cathy discovered her best friend was getting engaged, she felt more envy than enjoyment. Ashamed of her strong jealousy, she tried to wipe out these unacceptable feelings through the detour of binging.
Overeating is often born out of an attempt to refuel your energy, even when all you might need is rest, a nap or going to bed early.
Tanya would pump herself up between her day job and her night job through compulsive eating. Not able to respond to her body’s need for rest, she used binging as an energy boost.
Yes, food can provide comfort and connection. But it doesn't heal emotional pain. That said, many people try to create a connection with food as a way of avoiding the pain of rejection.
Stephanie's boyfriend ditched her abruptly without a real explanation. Overeating became her substitute "date" on the weekends.
Binging takes planning and energy, and can seem more "appetizing" than some dreaded task that needs to get done. For that reason, binge eating is often used as an avoidance and procrastination tactic.
Deena was in a challenging Master's program. Fearful of studying and writing papers, she found herself gorging on food to delay getting down to work.
12. Guilt / Shame
Binging can be an attempt to detour and relieve guilty, shameful feelings. Often, the act of binging creates guilt and shame that is clearer or easier to stomach than the deeper feelings to begin with.
Lisa had a brief romance with her married boss. She turned to food, her “substance of choice,” to distract herself from this gnawing self-blame.
13. Fear of Intimacy/Sex
Overeating can be a self-sabotaging way to feel detached from one's body as sexual, and can be done as a way to avoid intimacy.
Taylor was uneasy with sex. She avoided her husband by stalling her bedtime and, instead, would stuff herself in the kitchen pantry.
In particular, many people fear crying or other expressions of extreme emotions. As a result, many people would also rather overeat than cry for fear that once they start, the tears will never stop.
Jill's mother died unexpectedly at the same time her father was in the hospital for surgery. Needing to “stay strong,” Jane buried her sorrow and diverted her tears through her eating binges.
Like anger, resentment can cause you to “swallow” uncomfortable feelings, and detour around them through emotional eating (rather than confronting the feelings themselves).
Marie felt strong resentment to her boss for denying her request for a salary increase. Fearful of alienating him, she buried her resentment in binge eating.
Now that you have identified the triggers that start a binge, be on the alert for your unique, personal stresses. Try to create an alternative plan each time you become vulnerable and include large doses of self-compassion!
Remember: Awareness + Action = Progress