A woman emailed me feeling frustrated and discouraged. After weeks of clean, conscious eating, and great progress, she found herself in a week long binge, gaining 5 pounds, and losing hope.
It reminds me of another woman who emailed me to share how her bingeing had returned in the past year – the toughest of her life – after experiencing great strides forward.
What’s going on?
In both cases, what changed for each woman was stress. Their lives got more stressful, what addiction expert Dr. Mate says “is what causes relapse.”
A hard year. A bunch of small things that pile up, like they did for the first woman (winter weather that kept her homebound and isolated, lack of normal childcare due to school closings, missed exercise, and more.) In her case, as exercise is one way she relieves her stress, she also lost one of her coping strategies.
In all of these cases, there’s nothing wrong with us. The fact that we go back to overeating does *not* discount the tremendous growth and healing we’ve made, or our progress forward. It does not doom us to stay stuck, either!
When our stress levels rise, it’s very easy to go back to what feels normal – the old brain wiring, the bingeing. We step back into the old wagon rut. The new wagon ruts (not bingeing) aren’t as strong, which is fine when the stress is low. When the stress is high, the new pathways aren’t strong enough to keep us out of the rut!
If you find yourself bingeing again after a period of freedom, here’s what you can do to shift. Your goal is two things – to lower your stress and to strengthen the new pattern (the not bingeing.) Here are some ways to do that:
1. Ground yourself. Keep up your daily routines, structures, and rhythms as much as possible. We naturally need more grounding when we’re under stress. They create safety and soothe anxiety. (Read more about grounding here.)
2. Play and rest. Consider adding some fun, play and rest, something to bring levity and lower the stress. Children, when exhausted or overwhelmed, rest and play. We tend to keep pushing, which takes us further out of balance!
3. Use the damage control tool when you’re in that tight space of an oncoming binge. It’s an effective stress reliever when you’re caught in the panicky moment of wanting to binge. Also, listen to this podcast on help for “I can’t handle this!” moments.
4. Grieve. If you’ve experienced loss, your body is probably crying out for mourning. Mourning is soothing – think of how cleansed you feel after a good cry, like the crisp feel in the air after a storm. (Listen to this podcast on befriending our pain.)
5. Soothe the judgment. We often turn on ourselves when we go back to old, painful patterns like bingeing. We discount all our growth and progress and blame ourselves.
This, I believe, is the greatest suffering of all – the doubt that says, “No, you haven’t changed, you’ll never be able to change, it’s hopeless,” and on and on.
It’s important to soothe these feelings because once they get going, they spiral and keep us stuck. They feed the cycle of bingeing because we think, “Why bother?” They increase our stress and anxiety – which, yes, then we try to soothe with overeating!
Compassion – forgiving ourselves; dropping the blame and judgement – soothes the doubt. It soothes the hopelessness. We can soothe ourselves by holding ourselves as we would hold a small child. I like to rock myself in a rocking chair with my hand on my heart and tell myself, “I care. I care about your suffering. It’s alright, sweetheart. It’s not your fault.”
Often this step – soothing the voice of blame and guilt, soothing the hopelessness – can be enough to get us back on track. We soothe the hurt so we can dust ourselves off and try again. (Listen to this podcast on how I found compassion and dropped the blame for my greatest challenge – depression.)