One of the hardest things to admit to is overeating or binge eating. Even someone who has a relaxed and natural relationship to food the majority of the time, will feel some embarrassment in admitting they ate an entire packet of biscuits after an argument with their partner. We have developed the idea that giving in to our emotions, no matter what form that may take, shows weakness and lack of control. Admitting that we are not happy with our lives has become taboo.
The uncomfortable truth is that everyone has their own way of coping with life, especially anything that causes them upset. Eating is the most basic of survival instincts, instantly creating a feeling of calm and contentment. We don’t even need to do it to feel the benefits; often just thinking about eating will provide us with the feeling that everything will be alright.
Once our methods of coping are learnt, they never leave us. Even now, years on from my weight loss, I still get the urge to eat first whenever I feel upset; it is and always will be my first instinct. The only difference between then and now is that now I see it as it happens, giving me the choice to follow it or not. People are often shocked that I still on rare occasion give in to it. They look at me like I’m relapsing back into a despicable past. What I am really doing is following my basic instinct just as anyone else does; it is just more visible because I am happy to talk about it. If food is what will help me make sense of the world at that moment, then I have the choice to use it, just as a smoker or drinker or gambler chooses his or her own way. There are times in our lives when escape is the only answer available to us, and as long as we do it knowingly, we should never feel bad about it.
Letting all stages of your overeating and binge eating happen in a way that you are fully aware of, the before, during, and after, turns something that has previously felt wrong and destructive into a way of learning about yourself. Today you will learn how to gain that awareness, but first let’s look at the types of eating and which you most identify with.
Despite the sense of urgency that goes with binge eating, it is a completely structured action. It takes organisation, it needs certain conditions and it takes advance planning to get right. The planning is all build up to the removal from reality that the binge is going to give you. You look forward to that time, thinking about it feels good and it becomes a safe, familiar place to go. It is like going on a holiday from your mind, there is nothing else there but you and the food. The emotions around binge eating are fiercely strong so it is important we acknowledge the strength of our reasons for getting there.
Pre binge build up
Excitement, freedom, panic, confusion, rebellion, anxiety, drive, longing. Before a binge, whilst it is still in the planning stage, the feeling of the imminent release is the best feeling in the world. You know that everything you are feeling, all the stress and fear, is going to leave you, albeit temporarily, and you have that surety that you will get the respite you need. The temporary nature of the break is irrelevant, you have the answer and that is part of the relief. Sometimes, the only time that a person feels truly alive is when they know they have a binge coming. It is all for them and it is the only thing that will fulfil everything they need.
During the binge
Release, pleasure, satisfaction, calmness, fear, selfishness, anxiety, escape, freedom, hidden, alone (but not lonely); binge eating becomes mostly unconscious after the first few bites. That release of pleasure endorphins keeps us going until the last bits of food are gone. It feels right to keep going, stopping would be the worst thing in the world to do because if you did, everything would come flooding back. Whilst there is food in your mouth you are safe from the outside.
Post binge emotion hit
Guilt, self-hate, anger, regret, tiredness, heaviness, emptiness, loneliness, remorse, body and mind stress; the feeling of fulfilment after a binge is often very short, a few minutes at most and in some cases not there at all. The realisation that nothing has changed, that the world is as you left it can bring in the feeling of loss or being lost. Depending on what was eaten, the overworked digestion can be so tired that there is no energy left for the rest of the body and so stillness is the only answer. The escape can either be prolonged by the tiredness, or we are held captive by our inability to move.
The reasons behind binge eating
Distraction binges are deliberate and planned. They provide comfort when we are alone and force the thoughts we don’t want to stop completely. There is often a trigger, something has happened or is going to happen that we want to remove from our thoughts and food provides that block.
When we have starved ourselves of the pleasure of eating through dieting, binges are our mind’s way of shouting at us to get some fun back. For the period of the forced starvation, we feel miserable, and under-nourished physically and emotionally. These binges feel like a celebration of starting to live again.
Binges fuelled by self-hate are not so much about hating your body as it is, but the fear of what it is changing into. These types of binges often occur when you begin losing weight and your self-judgement increases. The mind sees the weight loss but because the weight is still needed for safety, (protection, energy, bubble, baggage), it forces a state of panic which drives eating to remove the high emotion. We often call this type of eating ‘sabotage’, and it can include feelings of anger towards our self. Part of us loves our new, slim body but the scared part of our mind is driving us to go back to where it is safe and familiar.
Emotional emptiness is something that takes work and effort to be able to fill, so food is the perfect instant substitute. The physical fullness that the food causes can temporarily take the place of our emotional need for fulfilment. These binges express a hunger for life and living that we’re either not ready for yet, or don’t know how to find. Binges like this keep us in the same place; keep us from facing what we truly need. These binges need to be long enough to leave us so tired that we can no longer feel the emotion, because we don’t know how to find the fulfilment we need elsewhere.
Overeating is the less planned way of eating too much. It’s less urgent because it is almost completely unconscious and without awareness from start to finish. Overeating can even apply to healthy foods like fruit and vegetables. It is simply the process of holding onto the feelings of eating for as long as possible. We can call it grazing or small meals; it’s all the same, the act of almost constant eating. There is not as much emotion connected with overeating as binge eating because it is constant, and so constantly numbs us, but when it stops and all the food is gone, it can result in huge emotional breakdowns and a despair-like effect. The conscious mind realises that there is no way out and reality comes storming back.
The reasons behind overeating
Eating gives us something to do, it moves our focus from whatever is boring or stressing us and means we can suffer what we don’t like as long as we keep eating. It’s like holding your hand in boiling water whilst injecting morphine into the arm. Food makes anything bearable as long as it is constant, and the fear of stopping and facing reality is sometimes enough to keep us eating all day.
When we eat, endorphins are released in the brain, which make us feel happy and by overeating we get this feeling constantly. A life void of pleasure can use overeating as a way of permanently feeling a little bit happy. We don’t know how to find the same feelings elsewhere, so food provides the answer.
Overeating keeps the body working constantly, stressed, and in discomfort. It keeps us where we are, unable to move to somewhere better, get that new job, change that relationship, go after what we really want, because we are tired and uncomfortable. We know what we want and at the same time hate ourselves for not going after it. Eating in this state is often not enjoyable; it can feel like each bite is full of regret and frustration.
Eating all day gives us the feeling of being filled up even though our emotional needs are not being met. We keep our stomachs topped up and it fools us into thinking everything is okay; as long as we keep eating the emptiness can’t get through. Often it is difficult to understand and admit what we are missing in our lives and so we have no idea of how to start finding what we need.
Whatever your method of eating, what I want you to understand is that you are not ‘just’ eating. Don’t ever shrug off your eating as a habit, it is important because it is the best window into your inner world that you have. Embrace why you do it, when and how, because without looking at it you will never know how to change it. Love your urges and what they give you back. Strong feeling means strong reasons and anything that has strong feeling with it is important to us. Your urges will be more honest with you than any best friend or therapist. Grab them and start to learn.
When, is key
I want to stress when you eat as one of the biggest clues in figuring out what your main reasons for eating are. We will always begin or plan to eat shortly before the emotion that we fear starts to happen. Although it may not be something we notice consciously, the mind realises that something that is going to happen or we are going to start thinking about will cause us pain or discomfort, and so it urges us to act before it begins. Stopping for food on the way home from work tells you there is something that your mind fears will happen at home, that it wants to protect you from. Overeating before bed can be an indicator that you are anxious about the next day. Sadness or fear begins to come up which need food to go away. Taking lots of food with you to work so you can graze all day reveals a job that is causing either boredom or stress. You may not realise any of this at the time it happens, you will just feel the urge to find food, but it is your mind showing you what is truly making you unhappy.
Extract from “Still Overweight? The 6-week course that changes your weight and relationship to food forever”