What if it's not just emotional eating? What if it's something more?
There are so many of us that use food for more than just nourishment, or enjoyment, or as a way to connect with our community...there are so many of us that use food in a desperate way to fill some deep emotional hole that we have.
We use food to somehow make us happy, or calm, or just plain "feel better," whatever that means to us!
For the most part, we call this EMOTIONAL EATING (Check out the blog I wrote about emotional eating here https://www.realexcellentliving.com/post/emotional-eating-been-there-donethat)
But for some of us, the eating has reached a tipping point and it's more than just emotional eating, for some of us it's become something darker and seemingly harder to overcome.
Some of us have tipped over into Binge Eating.
So what is Binge Eating?
Binge eating is an aggravated form of emotional eating. Over time, an emotional eater moves from just eating in response to emotions to MASSIVELY overeating in response to emotions once you are no longer able to get the good feeling from food that you are used to. Often you tip from emotional eating to binge eating when you have a major life trauma or upset that you can't cope with or process.
So how do you know if you have tipped over from emotional eating to binge eating?
Well, if you are a binge eater you :
- Tend to consume amounts of food that others feel is excessive. A handful of cookies is not enough - we finish the whole bag, we don't just eat one donut we eat 3, or 4 or 6. When we eat for emotional reasons eating an extra dessert might do it, when we are binging we eat the whole cake!
- Tend to lose control while eating - this is the most distinct characteristic of binge eating. Some people describe feeling 'zoned out,' unaware of what they are doing, or simply just seeming to lack the ability to stop eating. To put it mildly, self-control and will power go completely out the window! Very often you may find that even if you are normally a very neat and tidy person you may leave a mess of crumbs or wrappers behind - as if you suddenly just don't care! Emotional eating is much more a conscious decision then binge eating which feels unconscious!
- Tend to eat more quickly than usual - there is a frenetic, frantic energy to binge eating! When you are emotionally eating you savor the food as it soothes your feelings, with binge eating there is a "stuffing your face" energy that has nothing to do with flavor or enjoyment and instead is just trying to consume as quickly as possible.
- Tend to eat to the point of pain - when you are binge eating you eat to the point of feeling extremely uncomfortable even to the point of feeling painfully full, and then you keep eating. (Think Thanksgiving dinner on steroids!) Emotional eating normally stops before you get to that point.
- Tend to eat in secrecy - Emotional eating can easily happen when we are out for dinner or with other people around, but with binge eating it's something we do alone or in secret. We might hide food or buy food without letting other people know. And we keep it a secret because we feel a huge amount of shame or embarrassment about what we are doing!
- Tend to feel shame and disgust after you are done binging! Instead of food making you feel better or feel happiness with a twinge of guilt (like you would if you were emotionally eating) you instead feel massive amounts of mental anguish, or anxiety, or depression. This is an important thing to remember...eating no longer has the desired effect of making you feel better, instead, it makes you hate yourself! (For a lack of a better way to say it)
So maybe you've tried everything to gain some control over your eating and maybe you have always thought you were an emotional eater...but now you recognize yourself in the description above!
Maybe why all the advice you have heard and tried has never worked makes sense now!
Maybe you have done so much work on yourself, have walked the path of self-discovery and growth, have dived into self-care, and self-image and self-esteem work, but for some reason have not been able to let go of what you thought was emotional eating.
Binge eating might have a lot in common with emotional eating, but it requires a different strategy and mindset when trying to heal from it!
The first thing I had to realize as I went deeper into my relationship with food, was that binge eating was not something I was doing wrong, it was not a weakness or a lack of self-control, it was my brain actually doing what it was supposed to be doing!
I had to realize that it wasn't that I wasn't working properly, but rather that I was working properly!
See when we are emotional eaters we are using a different part of our brain then if we are binge eaters, when we are emotional eaters we are using our limbic brain that is responsible for our emotions, but when we are binge eating it is something much more primal, we are actually being controlled by our reptilian brain, where our amygdala is stored, which is where our fight, flight or freeze response comes from. The questions that our reptilian brain asks are "Can I mate with it? Is it safe? Can I eat it?"
If you are a binge eater it feels like you have no control, it feels like something else is taking over when you eat and that is because something is...you are being controlled by our most basic survival instincts. This is your mind trying to take care of you - not trying to harm you!
But so often we are trying to solve our binging by using our limbic or prefrontal cortex which we actually don’t have access to when our reptilian brain is in control.
Hence the reason that when we come to after binge eating it seems like we were someone or somewhere else, and why we promise ourselves it will never happen again (that's our prefrontal talking) but it always does.
For so many years, I was trying to fix my binging with my logic, reasoning, higher thinking, etc that my prefrontal cortex offers (focusing on self-love, etc), never realizing why I wasn’t making a dent. All that personal growth didn't help when I was faced with the temptation of food, or when the end of the day came. My brain was too busy trying to protect me!
So how do you deal with the reptilian brain?
Your work is to address the fear and create a space where you feel safe. When you create a space where you feel safe and you address that fear you can again access your higher mind. Without creating the feeling of safety, which is what the reptilian brain is trying to create with its overeating, you can not get past the instinct and begin to function from a higher level of thinking
Almost all advice on how to deal with emotional eating makes the assumption that you have access to your limbic or prefrontal cortex -which you don't have when you are in reptilian brain mode- which is why all that advice hasn't worked. All information that we receive first flows through our reptilian brain and then moves to the limbic and the prefrontal cortex.
So how do you create a feeling of safety for your brain so that the information can naturally flow into a part of your brain that allows you again to access things like reason, logic, self-love, disciple, etc?
Here are 6 things that worked for me:
- Give yourself space, space between that moment that your reptilian brain says eat and you start eating. As you create that space give yourself the soothing message that you are safe. Doing something as simple putting the food you love binging on in hard to reach places gives you that moment of space where you can "come back to your sense" so to speak. My favorite way of creating space and soothing my reptilian brain at the same time is putting notes on my fridge door, pantry door, and any food that I find especially tempting that say, "You are safe," "Nothing bad is happening." "You are ok," "Just take one deep breath."
- After you feel like you have created a space of safety ask yourself "What am I afraid of?" If you are binge eating you are being controlled by fear so you must address that fear. Dig deeper than the first knee jerk reaction by asking yourself this 5 or 6 times and record everything that comes to mind. For me, when it came right down to it I feared the lack of control I felt I had in my life. Everything that controlled me was outside of myself and so I felt I was at the whim of what others would do. My reptilian brain tried to combat this fear through eating.
- The second thing to ask yourself is "What are you protecting yourself from? Any time the reptilian brain is in charge it is trying to protect you from danger or perceived danger. Since we don't live in a world where we have to be afraid of lions attacking us anymore, what we see as danger has changed! Social rejection, embarrassment, the feeling of being out of control, anxiety, overwhelm, loneliness, can all be seen as danger. For me the danger I felt like I was facing was the loss of my connection with myself as I wore myself out trying to please everyone!
- The next step sounds easy but is much more difficult then it sounds! You must accept the answers that come up in questions 2 and 3. Now don't think I can't hear you saying "Huh? Of course." But let's tell the truth here, most of the time we don't accept the answers that come up, instead, we try to rationalize, or blame, or analyze our answers so that they "make sense," or we judge them as if we should show up a different way the way we are. None of that is acceptance. Acceptance means saying "This is what is, and I will allow it to be, without trying to add or take away from it." You know you have found acceptance when you feel a settling or a grounding in your body, you don't have to like it, but you feel the tension about it drain away.
- Next ask yourself the question, "What do I really need right now? What is my desire?" When I realized that I felt so out of control in my life, I realized that I need two things, I needed to learn how to speak up about my needs, and I needed to stop over committing to things. You may find when you ask yourself that question something pops up really quickly but it scares you, but guess what, that's the path you need to be on - trust it. You may find when you ask yourself that question nothing pops up and you feel frustrated, don't worry that's ok! We are often so out of touch with what we actually need that we can't hear it right away! Trying starting a journal, and just free-write everything that comes to mind, then practice accepting whatever you wrote with no judgment or rationalization. Give your subconscious proof that you are safe to share your needs with!
- When you have identified your need immediately take a step towards it - even if it's just a small step! I remember sitting in my kitchen on nights that I felt compelled to binge and going through this process, and as I recognized my needs I found myself doing things like: sending out resignation emails to things that really didn't fit my schedule, writing letters to my husband to share my overwhelm, typing out texts that were long overdue but I had been putting off because I was afraid. They were hard things, but necessary in order for me to feel like I was taking back control of my life.
So instead of consuming more food then my body could possibly ever need, I found myself learning how to make myself feel safe, accepting myself for who I was, and learning how to grow in areas that were long overdue!
Cheering you on as you journey,