Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. Binge eating can characterise people’s behaviour across all types of eating disorders. It is a defining characteristic of both bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Binge eating involves eating much more rapidly than usual and eating large amounts of food until you feel uncomfortably full. Binges often occur when a person is alone because of feelings of shame and embarrassment. It can cause a lot of suffering: it can leave you feeling guilty, depressed and disgusted with yourself. Men and women can suffer from bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder at any age, but it typically starts in late teens to early 20s.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr Isobel Horn is here to tell us how we can interrupt the repetitive cycle of craving food and binge eating.
When you’re in the middle of a craving to binge, you might acknowledge the following: there are some things out of your control which you cannot change, there are other things you can change if you make different choices, and you need to know the difference between the two.
You might recognise that you binge for one reason and one reason only - because your head tells you to. Your thinking persuades you that eating is what must happen, so you eat. This is an obsession of the mind followed by compulsive behaviour. As we know, it becomes repetitive:
thoughts about binging —> binge-eating behaviour
Days, weeks, months - even years go by, and you almost always binge in response to your thoughts about binging. You might keep hoping that a day will arrive when the cravings for food and urges to binge will magically disappear, but this requires a little work on your part.
Accept the craving
Back to the moment of craving. As a binge eater, you cannot change the desire and urge to binge at the moment. You cannot make it go away, but you could do something radical – you could accept the craving and the discomfort it brings.
Why? Because you recognise that you have always binged to get rid of obsessional thoughts about binging. This action maintains your binge eating problem. Reluctance to accept the discomfort of craving keeps the never-ending cycle going. If you do not find a way to accept the craving, you will never stop the repetitive behaviour.
How do you accept cravings?
You acknowledge that the impulse to binge and thoughts about binging are, at this moment, on your mind. You might say, ‘It’s true, I really want to binge right now. I have a strong psychological and physical impulse, but not a real need, to binge. My head is twisting it to sound like a good idea, with all sorts of justifications, but I’m not going to think about it too long or get into that’. Instead, you might take a deep breath and remind yourself, ‘ this urge will pass whether I act on it or not’.
Accepting the presence of a strong desire to binge does not mean that you want the craving or like it. You might be unhappy that it has popped up, but you don’t fight with it. Don’t argue with it, reason with it or tell it to go away. Don’t judge yourself as weak or flawed because the craving is there, nor should you panic. Instead, get very matter of fact and practical and start looking for ways to move through an experience of craving without trying to change it or make it go away. This is the first step towards a new relationship with the desire to binge eat.
Change what you can
You change your UNWILLINGNESS and become willing to live through this urge to binge. The old way of dealing with a desire to binge is to binge. Just this once, experiment with something new: handle this desire to binge by reminding yourself that it’s OK to live alongside this urge, this ‘unwelcome visitor’ in your mind without the habitual response of eating - just for today, just for the next half hour. This is the change you make. You do not pick up food to get rid of the discomfort of obsessional thoughts about binging.
Imagine an unwelcome visitor to your home, a visitor who is intent on doing some damage, wreaking some havoc. You’d like them to leave but the more you reason with them, plead, even try and yank them out of the chair, the more they dig in their heels and resist you, the more determined they become to stay, overpower you and get what they came for. Imagine, now, that you take a neutral stance towards this visitor. You acknowledge that they have sneaked in and that they are up to their old tricks, but you don’t really engage with them. You don’t pretend to be happy about their presence but you decide to ignore them, deep breathe and go about your business despite them. Which visitor is going to get bored and leave more quickly?
So, mid-urge, stop what you’re doing: the work, the chores can wait – the only thing that’s important right now is that you find a way to move past this impulse and do something else. You can use distraction if you’re alone - move away and move your body, go for a walk. Identify someone you trust and ask for their help distracting you, or just call someone and ask how they are doing. Practise deep breathing, have a glass of water, find some way to delay the impulse – ‘No, not now thanks, I know you’re there urge but I have some other things to attend to right now, maybe later. Today I’m practising willingness’.
The truth is, whether you binge or don’t binge, the discomfort of the obsession to binge will pass. How many times did you ever give yourself the opportunity to discover this powerful truth for yourself? Maybe you could plan to experiment with this small act of bravery and handle the discomfort in a new way - by letting the urge pass.
The first time you don’t binge in response to craving food is when you begin your escape from the otherwise endless cycle of binge urge —> binge eating. There is some discomfort to be faced, but with surprisingly simple tools and support, you can stop binge eating – one urge at a time.
If you are struggling with cravings and would like some help to guide you away from binge eating, reach out to Doctor Isobel Horn.