The Mechanics of a Binge–and How to Stop Them

“Ugh, I feel gross.  How could I have eaten ALL that cookie dough?  What a weak, undisciplined glutton!  Why didn’t I stop?”

These thoughts are classic after a binge because they reflect (and fuel) that compulsive behavior.  For discussion purposes, let’s call a binge any event that involves eating more than our bodies need—of anything!  We can binge on grapefruit, rice cakes, and even salad (if you ever left a salad bar stuffed and feeling slightly sick you know what I’m talking about).

A common misconception about binges is they are about food, or rather, our weakness for food.  But compulsive eating is not about food.  And you are not weak.  You are actually strong because it takes a tough character to suffer the hostile consequences of a binge over and over.  Rather, a binge is about control and escape.  All compulsive eating is accompanied by the feeling that we are out of control, followed afterward by a sense of guilt, shame, regret and self-loathing.  Surprisingly, it is this very cycle that fuels future binge episodes.

Wanna stop them?  OK, let’s examine the mechanics of any compulsive (binge) eating:

We start with feeling anxious and out of control.   This can start when we are children and brought forward to be acted upon into adulthood, or it can happen as adults when events stress us out and we feel helpless.  A job loss, a death, loneliness, boredom, illness, injury, side effects from medication, a dominant or manipulative parent or spouse,  divorce—either yours or your parent’s, relocation to a new city, relationship stress, violence, family turmoil, financial issues, or crisis in any form can result in a very real feeling of impotence and helplessness.  We feel buffeted by the winds of life and helpless to affect the situation.  Let’s call this the 1st problem.

Mechanics of a Binge Timeline-Larger

The “1st Problem” makes us feel helpless.  Because the universe abhors imbalance, and because feeling weak and impotent are lousy experiences we seek a way to gain back a sense of power—if only for a few moments.  Here’s the kicker: bad people assert control by hurting others.  Good people exert control by turning that hostility inward on themselves.  Yup, a binge is a power grab that seemingly does not affect anyone but ourselves and therefore feels safe and outside of accountability.  It is a private and secret game.  It is an escape from the present, and subsequently, it is a full disconnect from our bodies and our preferences.  No one really wants to feel swollen and bloated, so compulsive eating, by definition, is a hostile override of our preferences.

So, good people binge to ballast anxiety or stress—to gain a sense of power.  This binge creates new problems (2nd Problem), such as: we feel sick, experience rapid weight fluctuations, we bloat, and we become discouraged and disgusted, feeling inherently out of balance.  But why do we keep doing it if it makes us feel so doggone yucky?

At the same time a binge gives us a (false) sense of power, it also makes us surrender to a sense of helplessness to stop it.  (See the 2nd and 3rd plots on the timeline.) We assert control over our situation by eating too much, and at the same time we feel out of control for eating too much.  Those two opposing forces, in combination with hateful self- talk, create the fuel that fires up future binges.  If a binge were unaccompanied by any guilt or regret it would never have the energy to become a compulsion.  For example, imagine after your very first binge you refused to pile on the negativity and instead simply noted how unappealing this coping mechanism really was.   If no shame or moral value was attached to it and you simply reflected on the event, like an observer, you would come to the conclusion that eating too much was unappealing.  In other words, there would be no hostile payoff to this coping mechanism and therefore, would not become a habit.  Does that make sense?  The payoff to a binge is a false sense of control from creating a situation—albeit a undesirable one.  However, refusing to beat yourself up about it afterward extinguishes the energy behind compulsive behavior.   In a straightforward way allow yourself to be OK with a binge.

The Antidote to Binges—

The next time you eat more of something than you truly prefer, talk yourself off the ledge by refusing to go down the road of self-punishment.  Instead, note as an observer, the various dynamics and false conversations that led to your disconnect and tell yourself it is OK—either way.  For instance, did you tell yourself these are your favorite kind of Doritos and therefore you need to grab extra handfuls because they are precious—but you took far more than you actually prefer to have in your body?  The antidote to binges is to discontinue feeding payoff to the episode.  Stop feeling bad.  You were not bad.  There is no moral judgment associated with bingeing.  No one is denied entrance to Heaven because in this life their body was out-of-balance .  Allow yourself to return to a connected space where you trust your body’s prompts to tell you what to eat and how much to eat.  Tune in as you eat to experience true pleasure, instead of escaping and never becoming fulfilled.  A binge is not pleasure.  A binge never ends with us feeling happily satisfied.  But true connected pleasure can result in your body talking to you and telling you it is fulfilled and in a state of bliss from yummy food.  Be well and balanced.  Please read more about balance and how to fuel a fast metabolism in my book: Miracle Pill 10 Truths to Healthy, Thin, & Sexy, along with numerous blog articles on this site:  If you have any comments or experiences regarding this issue I would be happy to get them.

Tres Hatch is the author of Miracle Pill 10 Truths to Healthy, Thin, & Sexy.

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