El Arroyo is a Mexican restaurant in the town where I live, Austin, Texas, and is known for its humorous signs. This one made me smile.
When you’re bingeing (or bingeing and purging), you’re caught in a highly stressful state.
Our higher brain functioning is not in charge. We’re not thinking about how terrible we’ll feel after bingeing. Our only thought is for relief, which is what we believe the binge will give us.
I liken a binge to a panic attack because it feels similar in its intensity and the drive to eat now!
It’s a very tight, intense place of “I have to, I must, I can’t handle this for one more minute…”
This build up of emotional energy can drive us forward. But once you binge, this built up emotional energy drains, which is why you feel better after a binge – even as you may feel frustrated or discouraged by it, too.
What to do when the urge to binge is very strong
How can you soothe yourself when you’re in this state? When you feel a strong urge to binge, many tools don’t work because the panic is so intense. You may feel caught or in a freeze state, as if you’re paralyzed.
One of my favorite tools to prevent a binge is the “Damage Control Tool” from Emotional Brain Training. It’s excellent to use when it feels like nothing else will help.
You use this tool when your mind is spiraling out of control, when you feel that tight space of “I have to…”
It’s great for these situations:
- when you’re feeling overwhelmed
- trauma triggers
- when you’re caught in obsessive thoughts
- when you feel like you’re drowning underwater
- when a loved one says or does something that triggers a desire to binge
- when you’re in a high stress state
- and when you feel critical towards yourself, especially about your body or your eating
Here’s how to use this tool:
1. Step 1 – Tell yourself, No judgment. Use your name with this step. For example, I would say, “No judgment, Karly.”
Using your name is very calming. As Laurel Mellin, the founder of EBT explains, it creates a feeling in the brain of a loving parent caring for us. Much of our healing is giving ourselves this unconditional love and care, the nurturing that we need to care for the emotional brain.
Why do we say “no judgment?” When we’re caught in a panic we’re often subtly (or not so subtly) judging ourselves. We feel guilty or responsible – this sense of “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
To soothe this blame, we offer ourselves the mercy of “no judgment” towards ourselves for being human – for feeling panicky, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, triggered, or wanting to binge. We also offer “no judgment” towards others if we’re blaming others.
2. Remove yourself from harm. This means to get out of the house, the kitchen, to separate from the food or sugar, to call a friend, to go for a walk – to do whatever you can to keep yourself out of harm’s way.
3. Tell yourself, This too shall pass. Again, use your name. This powerful reminder reassures us that while we’re feeling out of control in the moment, everything passes. This will pass.
Repeat the cycle until you feel calmer. When it’s very intense, it may take 5-7 cycles, depending on your stress level, to move out of panic. When you’re in a calmer state, that’s when you’re able to access other tools.
Softening the fear of binges
Image credit: Explore Your Fears by artist Eddy Sara. Used by kind permission of the artist.
Binges can feel terrifying.
But at heart, binges are not the scary, frightening things we may take them to be.
If binges had a voice, they’d simply say, “I’m scared and overwhelmed and I don’t know what to do.”
A binge is a cry for help, a sign that you need support. Often what precedes a binge are intense feelings. You may feel helpless, panicked, uncertain, overwhelmed, or unsure. You may be trying something new. You may feel stressed or worried.
A binge is not a sign of poor will power, but simply a grasp for safety: you’re looking for a “holding container,” something to help you feel safe, calmer and less stressed in the face of this overwhelm.
Imagine the binge’s cry as a small child saying, “Um, folks, I need some help here!”
With this mindset, when the impulse to binge arises, we move to a place of companionship and support, rather than criticism, shame, or outcasting.
It’s helpful to think of this as a two step process:
- Recognize that you feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, or scared and need support. It happens to everyone. Can you offer yourself compassion for feeling scared or stuck? If in this moment, you’re having a strong urge to binge, we hope to gently make room for it.
- And step in and give yourself help and support. Then, you step in to give yourself support. This can include leaning on others for help – you don’t have to tough it out on your own. It can take many forms – emotional support, physical support, or spiritual support. The urge to binge usually lasts about 15 minutes. Often having someone at your side during this time can make all the difference in moving through it.
Other tools to help you move out of a binge
What soothes a binge are practices of compassion, containment (feeling safe and held), and connection. They foster feelings of safety and soothe the emotional brain, allowing the intense emotions to ease and flow. Here are a few more tools to try, that nurture all three of these needs:
Try the Binge Rescue Worksheet – Bingeing is an energy releasing behavior – it’s an attempt to drain the intensity of overwhelming emotions and stress. I created a tool, the Binge Rescue worksheet, to help you drain these emotions without binge eating. It walks you step by step through the process so you can feel calm, less stressed, and more at ease without using food to do so. You can get a copy of the worksheet here.
Call on love. I’ve used this tool for years and find it very soothing. I will literally “call on love,” calling love to me – people both past and present in my life, spiritual figures, pets, Nature, etc. – and blanketing myself with it. I imagine their faces, one by one, and place them in a circle around me, showering me with love and support – holding me in my time of need until the anxiety and panic fades. Try it and see what you feel.
“Rock your cravings to sleep.” I first heard this phrase of “rocking something to sleep” from a friend – I found it to be an excellent description of this practice. When you rock a baby, you’re soothing and holding the infant when it’s in a distressed state. When you rock your cravings to sleep, you’re doing the same thing – you’re “holding” or containing your emotions so that they can soften, drain, move and flow. Learn how to do this practice here.
Meditate. Meditation and any mindful activity can greatly help in creating a greater capacity to sit with intense feelings (like wanting to binge!) without acting on them. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach is my favorite teacher on this topic, although there are many others, and from a variety of spiritual traditions. This includes centering prayer, a form of Christian meditation, and Sufi meditation (my favorite teacher is business coach Mark Silver.) Rick Hanson offers a variety of mindfulness and meditative practices that aren’t tied to any one spiritual tradition.
Use a listening partner and schedule a listening session. Listening partnerships are an idea from Hand in Hand Parenting. Designed for parents, where parents take turn listening to each other in order to receive emotional support for parenting, I’ve found they’re also an excellent tool for binge eating, overeating, and other food compulsions. They’re wonderful for soothing the emotional brain. Learn more about listening partnerships here.