What is Binge Eating?
First, let’s address what binge eating actually is, because there’s often confusion around the term: Binge eating is eating a large quantity of food while feeling a loss of control around your eating. In order for something to be considered a “binge” it must include those two elements: (1) large quantity of food AND (2) a lack of awareness or control. Eating a large quantity of food at Thanksgiving is not a binge because it’s controlled and you are aware of how much you are eating.
Classic Signs of a Binge:
- Doing it Alone: Often you will not binge eat when others are around out of fear, judgment or embarrassment. This leads to a lot of binges happening during the 2nd half of the day when you find time to be alone.
- Hiding the Evidence: You may find that you are hiding the wrappers to candy, ice cream, etc. so loved ones don’t see it. Most of the time people hide binge eating from family members for quite a long time, which can lead you to be feel very isolated and alone when in your struggle against binge eating.
- Feeling Stressed or Depressed and Turning to a Binge: Binge eating can often be used as a way to cope with distressful emotions. It numbs the feelings, distracts your mind and leaves you focusing on food instead of the unpleasant emotion. A trigger for binge eating may be an argument with a loved one, feeling overwhelmed or feeling depressed.
- Swearing It Will Never Happen Again: The binge cycle is a frustrating one and it can leave you feeling as if you have no “willpower” (when that could not be farther from the truth!). It often leads to restrictive eating post-binge, which sets up the body to be under nourished and therefore, binge again because it’s in survival mode. Working through the restriction that occurs before the binge is vital to treating binge eating.
Binge Eating Vs. Mindless Eating:
Mindless eating is different from binge eating, but the two can often be confused. Mindless eating sometimes looks like snacking throughout the day instead of sitting down to have an actual meal when you are hungry. It might be noticing that the bag of chips you have been snacking on while watching TV is suddenly gone. You might feel guilt or shame around mindless eating, but it’s often not the same level or guilt, shame and embarrassment that occur post-binge.
Sometimes mindless eating can lead to a full on binge because of the shame you have experienced after mindless snacking. For example, you just realized you unknowingly ate the entire bag of chips , feel shameful for doing so and start to binge on peanut butter and ice cream to numb the shame that the mindless eating triggered.
Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder:
Often before I first start working with clients on overcoming binge eating disorder they tell me that they’ve tried everything to stop it on their own, and finally made the decision to call me when it’s unsuccessful. Binge eating can be very hard to treat by yourself, without a professional helping. Eating disorders are sneaky things that are hard to look at with a rational mind when you are in trenches of one, which is why finding a professional you trust to help you is imperative if you want to stop binge eating.
Sometimes getting help for binge eating means re-learning how to eat. Often we’ve been taught so many rules around food (and they all seem to contradict each other!) that we forget what it’s like to actually eat without hearing the food police in our head. Sometimes people see both a dietitian and therapist to work through binge eating disorder, because it truly does give you the best of both worlds.
In therapy binge eating is worked through in a couple different ways. Below are some of the common themes that you work through in therapy:
- Learning Skills: You learn skills to use to prevent binge eating and to work through urges to binge. If I had a magic wand and could “shut off” your binge button that would not be helpful because you’d most likely to turn to another maladaptive way of coping with distressful emotions (i.e., binge drinking, a toxic relationship, or overspending). So by simply taking the binge away, you aren’t solving the true problem. You want to learn how to cope with distressful emotions without having to numb them.
- Truly changing your relationship with food: The way you view it, how you think about it, how you talk to yourself about food and breaking away from any dieting behaviors that trigger binge eating are key to recovering from binge eating disorder.
- Addressing Mental Health Issues Underlying the Binge: Getting help for an anxiety disorder, depression or any trauma that may underlie the binge behaviors is something that is often processed in therapy. However, not everyone who suffers from binge eating has these underlying difficulties to work through.
- Body Image Work: Lastly, working through poor body image is a major player in treating binge eating. Perhaps it is compulsively using the scale to weigh yourself daily, body checking or measuring your thighs with your hands. These are all things to work through in therapy because they often trigger disordered eating behaviors. The way we view our body deeply impacts our mental health, the way we eat and the way we live our lives.
There’s hope! The good news is that I have seen many people recover from binge eating and go on to live happy and healthy lives. They find that they no longer obsess about food, are able to live full social lives again and use the energy they were putting towards foods into their career, relationships and happiness. Full recovery is completely possible and binge eating can be a story from your past.
About Danielle Swimm, LCPC: Danielle is a therapist in Annapolis, MD. Her areas of concentration include binge eating disorder, anxiety, and body image improvement for adults and adolescents. She also works with a variety of disordered eating and has a passion for mind-body health. She enjoys helping others improve their relationship with food and their body.