Binge eating at night and late night cravings

Binge Eating at Night and Late-Night Cravings

It’s common for binge eaters to primarily binge at night; and even after binge eating stops, you may still find yourself having late-night food cravings. Some people are bothered by these cravings, and wonder if giving in to them means that they are overindulging; or conversely, if ignoring those cravings means that they are being too restrictive. Everyone has to navigate the balance between restriction and overindulging, and at night is when we usually have the most opportunities to do that. Most people don’t get up in the morning craving a piece of cake, but after the work of the day is done, that piece of cake may seem much more appealing.

An important thing to know as a recovering binge eater—or anyone who feels like they eat too much at night—is that night food cravings are very common. One study found that appetite and interest in food peaks at around 8 pm, as part of our natural circadian rhythm. So, when you find yourself craving a sugary snack after dinner or after dark, know that you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. There are many theories as to why this is so, and you can read about some of them in this article: The Science of the Midnight Snack. From an evolutionary perspective, night eating had a survival advantage in that it helped our ancestors store calories more efficiently when food was less abundant. Even today, we live in a sort of “hunting” mode during the day—working, moving, and doing—and once we slow down at night, our survival mechanisms recognize this and give us a “time to eat!” signal. It’s as if we are wired to want to eat more at night to replenish the energy stores we lost during the day, and store up more for tomorrow.

We tend to crave sweets at night not only to replenish and store up energy, but for quick energy in the moment. At night we are tired and our brains are energy depleted. If we choose to stay awake or have to stay awake, our brains will naturally view sugary food as attractive and rewarding because it is a source of quick energy. Sure, a banana would do the trick, but for most people, that’s not what is the most appealing after dark. Our self-control functions are at their weakest when we are exhausted, so it’s no wonder that many people don’t make their healthiest food choices at night.

For people struggling with binge eating, these natural mechanisms can make them more likely to experience (and give in to) urges to binge at night; or their decision to follow a night craving leads to thoughts that say: “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well binge.” Instead of learning of the normalcy of late-night cravings, binge eaters often learn that wanting to eat at night is a signal that they aren’t emotionally fulfilled, or that their day was too stressful, or that they didn’t eat the right foods for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While stress, sleep, and diet patterns certainly can play a role in the frequency and intensity of night cravings, realizing that this type of heightened interest in food—especially junk food—is normal may help you spend less time asking why, and instead focus on some useful strategies to manage the night cravings when they occur.

Common advice for dealing with night eating is to keep healthier food options in the house, make sure you are eating enough throughout the day, eat dinner a bit later, do some light exercise at night, stay hydrated, make plans for when cravings hit, or just go to bed earlier. These common suggestions are certainly useful, but I want to go beyond that and give you 4 more things to think about when night cravings hit. These 4 tips can be helpful whether you are still binge eating at night or if you simply feel like you are eating too much after dark.

1: Stop Telling Yourself You Shouldn’t Eat at Night

We’ve all heard the popular advice that eating late leads to more weight gain, but this idea is actually rather controversial. While some experts say that the body doesn’t process and use food and calories well at night, so night eating can lead to weight gain, others claim that eating late at night is actually better for fat loss. Here is an article that says overall food intake matters more than timing, and it’s possible that the any observed link between late night eating and weight gain is not a causal relationship.

It’s important not to take all weight loss advice at face value and use it to make rigid rules for yourself. Telling yourself, “It’s late, I shouldn’t eat anything” can lead you to want to eat more—because anything that is forbidden in your mind becomes more appealing. You have freedom to eat at night if you want to, and only you can make that choice. I frequently have a snack before bed, and I’ve also eaten in the middle of the night from time to time since I recovered from binge eating. I’ve struggled with insomnia at various points, and during those sleepless nights, I’d eat about every 2 to 3 hours. I didn’t plan the intervals—that’s just when my body would naturally signal hunger. I’ve also been awake all night countless times with my babies, and I’ve spent long nights writing; and again, I eat when I’m hungry. The reason most people don’t eat in the middle of the night is because they are sleeping, not because they are telling themselves that they “shouldn’t”. If you are awake for one reason or another, don’t beat yourself up for being hungry and having some food.

2: Enjoy Your Late Night Snack

If you decide to eat something at night—either before bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night—don’t do it in a guilt-ridden way. Own your choice and enjoy the food. It sometimes helps people to put the food on a plate and sit down to eat, instead of standing at the refrigerator.  This makes your choice to eat feel more like a well-thought out decision instead of an impulsive one.

When I was in therapy for bulimia and binge eating disorder, I worked with a nutritionist who created a meal plan for me. She spread out my calories evenly during the day, which is fine; but it didn’t quite feel right to me and now I understand why. I didn’t find myself wanting a big breakfast or lunch, and found myself basically forcing in the food. Then, I’d come to the end of the day not feeling like my dinner or bedtime snack was big enough. I’d become frustrated and resentful; and if I decided to eat something extra late at night, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t truly enjoy it. This mindset often led directly to urges to binge at night, and I’d proceed to eat thousands more calories after my snack. My therapist explained that this night binge eating pattern stemmed from emotional issues.

Now, looking back, I can see that I simply needed more calories at night. I was an athlete at the time, and big meals during the day weren’t practical because they made me feel sluggish and full for track practice—which was usually twice per day. I needed more at night because that’s when my body signaled me to replenish my energy reserves. Altering my eating plan wouldn’t have stopped my binge eating (because I didn’t know how to dismiss the binge urges at the time), but there was simply no need for me to beat myself up over wanting to eat more at night. I should have eaten a little less during the day to fit my lifestyle, and then enjoyed a larger dinner and bedtime snack, without all the shame. Everyone has different patterns, so trust yourself to settle on eating times and amounts that work for you.

[If you feel like you need one-on-one support in creating a meal plan for yourself and nourishing your body during and after bulimia/binge eating recovery, Binge Code Coaching specializes in this.] 

3: Deal with Blood Sugar Fluctuations

If you are waking out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night feeling hungry, it could be a blood sugar imbalance. Of course, if you have any blood sugar problems, you should always seek a doctor’s advice. Here I’m talking about a simple dip in blood sugar that is making you feel like you need to eat something. You can try sipping some diluted juice before eating to take the edge off of the craving, and that has the added benefit of hydrating you—to ensure your craving isn’t partially due to thirst.

Then, if you are still feeling hungry, you will be in a less ravenous state and you can make a more rational decision about what to eat. I realize you don’t want to do this every night because it interrupts sleep, so as a long term strategy, you’ll want to balance blood sugar overall, and you can get nutritional support to do that. Some people find it helpful to eat something right before bed that will help regulate blood sugar—including protein, healthy fat, and possibly some high quality carbohydrates.

4: Use Detachment from Cravings in Conjunction with Other Strategies

Even if you stop binge eating at night, you might find that your night cravings still feel problematic. You can be confident that you never have a follow a night craving (or any craving) with a binge, but it makes sense to start addressing the night cravings. These type of cravings are more common if you are overtired, overworked, or overstressed, so working on those areas can often tweak your physiology enough to reduce nighttime cravings. Meditation, exercise, and supplements may also have a place in balancing your body. However, there will inevitably be times when life is rough, and stress is inevitable, or there is no time to meditate or exercise, or you have no extra money for supplements.  That’s why it’s important to know that you aren’t powerless when it comes to any type of craving.

Yes, it’s normal to have night cravings; yes, it’s okay to follow them; and yes, it’s great to enjoy whatever food you choose to eat at night—but you are still capable of a drawing a line when enough is enough, or deciding to simply say no. You can detach from night cravings just like you detach from binge urges. You can choose not to act on a night craving just like you choose not to act on an urge to binge. You don’t ever need to make night eating off-limits, but know that you get to decide the place that night eating has in your life.

For more help with ending binge eating at night (or at any time of day), you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.

Want to recover from binge eating

Do You Want to Recover from Binge Eating?

After my first binge, I wanted to stop. I did not want to eat so much food again in such an out-of-control way. I continued wanting to recover through all my years of being a binge eater. However, my desire for recovery didn’t always feel so clear. In the moments before a binge, I temporarily stopped wanting recovery; I temporarily didn’t care about all of the reasons I desired freedom from the consequences of binge eating; I temporarily wanted nothing more than large amounts of food. This left me confused and doubting whether or not I truly wanted to recover.

When you can’t seem to stop the harmful behaviors, it’s easy to question whether or not you actually want to recover from binge eating. You may think that if you truly wanted to recover, then you would have overcome the problem by now. In fact, I’ve noticed that one of the most common reasons people give for continuing to binge is that aren’t sure they really want to stop.

In my book, I wrote that the first step in recovery is wanting to recover, and I think most therapists, counselors, and coaches would agree. Nothing can help you until you have a desire to move away from the behaviors that are causing you pain. Others can educate you about the risks of what you are doing, they can help support you, they can give you tools to use for when you are ready; but until you decide that you no longer want binge eating in your life, you’ll continue down the same path. You have to want to take a new path, and no one can make that decision for you.

What Does Wanting to Recover Mean?

Wanting to recover doesn’t mean you will feel absolutely certain about it in every moment, especially when you first decide to stop binge eating, and especially when you are experiencing urges to binge. Wanting to recover doesn’t mean you’ll know what your life will be like after you end the habit, or that you’ll know exactly what goals you want to pursue, or that you’re sure you’ll enjoy every moment of your binge-free life. Wanting to recover simply means that you realize, on some level, that you can’t continue down your current destructive path and you want to move on to living free of the pain of binge eating.

If you are reading this blog post, it’s almost certain that you do want to recover. I believe that anyone who is seeking recovery advice, or reading recovery material, or engaging in any form of treatment or coaching does indeed have a desire to end the habit. Again, you won’t feel certain about it all of the time, and I’ll talk about that more later in this post; but you are definitely showing a desire to get the binge eating out of your life.

If you unquestionably believed that you wanted to keep up your behavior, why would you even bother reading this?  It’s helpful to see that and then move forward with what you need to do to stop binge eating, instead of overthinking whether or not you really, truly want to recover. Getting stuck in trying to feel completely certain before taking action can be unproductive and delay recovery indefinitely.

Binge eating produces harmful, uncomfortable, and shameful effects so that the fundamental and necessary desire to end the habit usually comes naturally.  But, what often gets in the way, which I’ll address now, are those moments when you temporarily believe you don’t want to recover.

The Lower Brain Makes You Doubt Your Desire For Recovery

In the moments (or the days, weeks, months or even years) when you feel like you don’t want to quit, it’s most likely because your lower brain—the part of your brain in charge of maintaining the habit—is driving your thought processes.  Because the lower brain senses you need to binge, it will only remind you of positive aspects of your behavior, and point out the reasons why you should continue to do it.

A good test to see that the wanting to binge thoughts are from the lower brain is to ask yourself how you feel after a binge. Do you regret it? Do you wish you could go back and make a different choice? Do you feel ashamed of your behavior? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then it was never you that wanted to binge. If you truly wanted to binge, you wouldn’t have regret afterward; you would simply do it, enjoy it, and move on without being affected much at all.

The problem is not that you don’t want to recover, it’s that sometimes the temptation of a binge takes over, and the lower brain temporarily convinces you that you don’t. Nothing is wrong with you because of this. It doesn’t mean you are weak or that you don’t have the ability to quit. It only means the lower brain and it’s motivational machinery and pleasure center are influencing your decisions, and you need to learn to put your higher brain back in charge.

In the moments before a binge, you likely experience thoughts that provide logical reasons for binge eating and make it seem appealing. For me, I think the most intriguing reason my lower brain gave me to binge was that it didn’t matter what part of my brain generated the urges, because I wanted to binge nonetheless. That was a challenging reason to separate myself from, because if I slipped back into believing I truly wanted binge eating in my life, acting on the urges would have been soon to follow.

That’s why I think it’s so important to be able to dismiss any thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. You can learn more about this in Episode 4: Dismiss Urges to Binge, Component 1: View Urges to Binge as Neurological Junk. You probably have thoughts that say binge eating is worth it, or that it is really you that wants to binge, or that you don’t actually want to recover. You don’t have to believe those thoughts or give them any attention.

The lower brain has been conditioned to react as if the binge eating habit is necessary for your survival, and when you don’t do it, it senses that you are threatened. It will use what thoughts have worked in the past to get you to repeat the behavior, and many of these thoughts may make you doubt your desire for recovery. Thoughts like “you don’t know what you’d do without the habit” or “this has been a part of your life for so long, you’d be lost without it” or “you don’t truly want to quit” are just some examples of common lower-brain driven, binge-promoting thoughts.

The lower brain won’t remind you of the regret, remorse, guilt, uncomfortable fullness, or the health risks of binge eating (and purging); and trying to think about those things when you are experiencing an urge is usually not effective at deterring your lower brain. Your job is only to experience the tempting thoughts and feelings with detachment and without acting on those thoughts and feelings. After the urge subsides, you’ll again realize that you certainly don’t want to binge, and you’ll remember all of the reasons why; and you’ll be so glad you didn’t temporarily believe your lower brain.

You Can Stop Binge Eating Before Fully Wanting to Recover

Someone asked me a great question recently, which was: “Do you believe in stopping acting on the binge urges before you fully want to recover?” Simply put, yes—because it’s unlikely that anyone pursuing recovery wants to recover 100 percent of the time. Everyone who ends a habit needs to deal with the resistance of the lower brain as it’s re-conditioned, and as I’ve discussed, this causes doubt in your desire to quit during urges. And, because it takes some time for the urges to go away after you stop acting on them, you’ll get plenty of practice disregarding the brain messages that say you don’t want recovery. Just don’t take those brain messages seriously, and you’ll keep returning to feeling like your true self who wants nothing to do with binge eating. This will happen over and over until the urges fade, and when they do, that nagging doubt about your desire for recovery will go away too.

One of the implications of this is that you probably won’t fully want to recover (in every moment) until after your binge urges go away. So, ultimately, it’s a matter of taking that leap to stop acting on the urges, and knowing that your desire for recovery will grow as your binge urges fade.

For me, the excitement and amazement I felt at finally being able to control my behavior seemed to quickly override those nagging desires to continue doing it. I was able to experience any feeling of not wanting to quit as part of the lower-brain driven habit. I knew that those feelings did not indicate my true feelings, so I didn’t give them attention or significance. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t have doubts pop up from time to time, it’s that I dismissed them when I did.

An important thing to remember is that no matter how much you think you want to quit, there are going to be times when binge eating seems appealing. But, you will get stronger and more sure of yourself over time, and with each conquered urge. Your desire to put this habit behind you will start to eclipse any temporary desire to binge, leaving you wondering why you ever thought you wanted it in the first place.

What if You Don’t Want to Quit Between Binge Urges?

What I’ve described so far is a typical scenario of you truly wanting to recover, but in moments of urges, you temporarily thinking that you don’t. But, what if you feel like this doesn’t apply to you? What if you experience a lack of desire for recovery even when you’re not having an urge to binge?  What if you don’t have much regret about your behavior or any real longing to live habit-free? What if, in moments of clarity, you think that continuing to binge makes sense?

If this is the case for you, I have three suggestions. First, you could try to take a big leap and quit anyway, and let me explain what I mean by this. Even though you may feel like your true self wants to binge, you could still avoid acting on that desire, knowing that it will eventually fade. No matter how much you want to continue the habit, you still have the ability to control whether or not you perform the voluntary muscle movements it takes to carry out a binge.

You can acknowledge your desire to continue binge eating, but tell yourself that it’s simply not in your best interest. Feel sorry for yourself for a while if you need to. It’s hard to realize that we can’t have what we want, whether we are talking about binge eating or other aspects of our lives. It’s human nature to have desires, but those desires can’t always be realized, and shouldn’t always be realized. This might seem like a depressing thought to you, but I believe that once some time goes by, the desire to recover that you didn’t have can appear. You’ll realize how much time and money you wasted by being caught up in the habit, and as the urges fade, you’ll realize that the pleasure you got from it was never worth it anyway. It’s like walking away from a bad relationship even though you truly love the person. It takes courage, strength, and it hurts; but you soon realize you are better off without that person in your life.

My second suggestion is to seek outside help to try to find and grow that desire to recover within yourself. Brain over Binge is intended for people who realize they have a problem and want to recover from it. If you do not feel any pull toward recovery, or if you are complacent in your behavior, then the Brain over Binge approach will not be the right fit, at least until you find that spark of your true self who wants to recover.  I’m not talking about “finding your true self” in the sense of becoming emotionally fulfilled or figuring out your life’s purpose prior to stopping binge eating, because that could delay recovery for a very long time. I’m talking about doing what you need to do to catch a glimpse of the part of yourself that wants to move on from this habit.

Know that therapy isn’t the only avenue to help you achieve a desire for recovery. Other things that can help are finding things you enjoy that are incompatible with binge eating, volunteering to help those less fortunate than you, and creating goals for the future so that you can focus your energy toward something other than the habit.  To develop a desire for recovery, you have to be open to it, you have find opportunities to see what your life could be like if you were free of your eating disorder. It takes courage to do this even in the face of doubts.

My last suggestion is to realize you do have free choice, and embrace whatever choice you decide to make. I would never recommend that someone continue to binge, but I do not agree with labeling someone as diseased or disordered when they are fully deciding that they want to keep up their habit. As Jack Trimpey says in Rational Recovery (when talking about alcohol), “self-intoxication is a basic freedom, an individual liberty.” [pg. 59].

Those of you who have read Brain over Binge know that Rational Recovery helped me stop binge eating, and I think part of the reason why was because Trimpey’s book takes a more hard-hitting approach toward those who don’t want to quit, which I needed at the time I read it. I needed someone to tell me that I could certainly keep up my behavior if I wanted to, but that I could no longer hide behind a disease label or the idea that I needed to sort out a lot of other problems before I could quit. If I were to continue to binge because I felt like I wanted to, then that would be my choice, and I would have to own it.

There were countless binge eating recovery resources that told me otherwise—that told me it wasn’t a choice and that I was justified to continue binge eating because it was serving some sort of purpose in my life, helping me cope with problems, or fulfilling my unmet emotional needs. When I believed those things, it did make me feel a little better about myself for continuing to binge, but it didn’t lead to recovery. Thinking that I was justified to continue my behavior didn’t make the behavior any less harmful. Even though it wasn’t my fault that I had developed the binge eating habit, it was my responsibility to end it, even if there were times when I felt like I didn’t want to recover.

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If you have a desire for recovery and want to stop acting on your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF.

If you want even more guidance as you stop binge eating, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course that is now available for only $18.99 per month

Fear in binge eating recovery

Facing Fear in Binge Eating Recovery (and Life!)

There’s an often confusing contradiction that appears in people who struggle with binge eating and want to recover, and that is—binge eaters sometimes fear recovery. I definitely experienced this and didn’t understand why. Even though I knew I didn’t want to remain a binge eater, there was something scary about not knowing what might be on the other side of recovery.

The unknown can bring up fear in many different situations, and you may find yourself facing a variety of fears in binge eating recovery. You may be afraid of what may happen to your weight, you may fear learning to eat certain foods in moderation, you may fear giving up the distraction of binge eating and letting go of whatever temporary pleasure it may bring (even though you know binge eating is causing you so much pain).

A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

I want to share a personal experience I’ve had recently that relates to overcoming fear, and I hope you can apply what I talk about to whatever you are afraid of as you recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder. This experience is not food related, but it will help you understand how the brain can unlearn fear, and that can empower you to face your own fears.

For about five years, I was afraid of driving on expressways (interstates/freeways, whatever you may call them). I rarely drove on expressways, and by rarely, I mean maybe twice a year. I had no problem riding with someone else driving, but every time I tried to drive myself, I experienced panic and anxious sensations. I found it easier on my nerves just to stick to slower roads. When I lived in Phoenix, AZ, this was not much of a problem, because it’s possible to get anywhere in the metro area without ever getting on an expressway, even though may take much longer.

Our family moved to a new city about seven months ago, and that’s when I decided it was time to change. Both my mother-in-law and my mother don’t drive on expressways because of fear, and their current problems date back to when they were about my age. Maybe it’s a self-preservation instinct in a young mother to become more fearful; but whatever the cause, I didn’t want this fear to stick around and limit my travel options now and in the future. We are lucky enough to be living closer to my family now, and my goal was to be able to pack up and drive to visit them whenever I wanted—without my fear getting in the way.

During the seven months since our move, I’ve overcome this fear about 90 percent. I take expressways nearly every day; I’ve driven eight hours to get to Tennessee, six hours to get to New Orleans and back twice; I’ve gone through Atlanta rush-hour interstate traffic a few times. I now feel I could conquer nearly any driving situation, and although I still get nervous passing big trucks, I still go too slow in the rain, and I still don’t like going over tall bridges, I feel so much more free.

The Fear Response Can Become Linked to Certain Situations (or Foods)

I know it was an irrational fear, even though there is certainly some real danger in driving. Most people drive on expressways without fear or with minimal fear, just as the majority of people eat without fear. For me, the fear response became temporarily linked in my brain to driving, and it’s possible that for you, the fear response has become linked to certain foods or ways of eating, or linked with your attempts to overcome your eating problems.

I’ve been thinking about the way that I’m conquering my driving fear, and how it could help someone overcome fears in binge eating recovery. In Brain over Binge, I explained how binge eating is usually ego-dystonic—meaning not in line with what you actually want when you are thinking rationally. I think that it’s often the opposite with anorexia and restrictive dieting, in that those behaviors are often ego-syntonic—meaning it feels like what you are doing is in line with what you actually want.

When I was stuck in the fear of the driving, my avoidance of the expressways felt ego-syntonic. I felt like it was what I truly wanted. I felt like it was fine to take the slower roads because I believed my kids and I were safer by staying off of the expressways. Even though that may have been statistically true, my fear limited me very much and caused me to waste a lot of time I could have spent doing other things. But, I didn’t have much motivation to change, and I became rather complacent.

Each time I avoided an expressway, I cemented the pattern until it became a strong habit. It became something I simply didn’t do, and for years, I rarely even entertained the option of taking an expressway. It was only when we moved, and visiting family required interstate driving that I snapped out of my complacency and felt a desire to change. I realized that what started out as a fear response linked to driving had turned into a an ego-syntonic behavioral habit.  But, based on my new situation and goals, the desire to avoid expressways suddenly felt ego-dystonic.

Thoughts Fuel Fear and Urges to Binge

I realized that all of the thoughts that convinced me to keep avoiding expressways were well-ingrained and had become automatic, just like my urges to binge had done in the past. Because of my experience ending the binge eating habit, I knew that the habitual thoughts and feelings discouraging me from driving on expressways were not going to stop just because I now wanted to drive on expressways. Like with the urges to binge, I knew those thoughts and feelings would only go away if I stopped believing them and stopped acting on them.

I didn’t bother trying to go back and figure out where the fear originally came from or what else I could change in my life to help make that fear subside. I knew what would make the fear go away: simply driving on the expressway day after day. I had some doubts about whether it would work as well as it did with ending the binge eating habit, because I certainly don’t believe that the way I stopped binge eating is the solution to every problem (for more information on how I stopped acting on my binge urges, you can download my free PDF).

Act in Spite of Fear, and the Fear Can Simply Fade Away

The first few times I entered the on-ramp of an expressway, I felt extremely anxious. But, I knew that despite the feelings of fear welling up in me and the thoughts telling me to pull over, I could control my motor movements—I could check my mirrors, press the gas pedal, and merge left even if my hands were trembling a little.

I just want to stop here and say that I realize some people with phobias experience a much more extreme panic reaction and may feel like they have no control of their motor movements, so I am not saying that everyone can simply face their fears head on without professional help. But, I still believe it’s possible to decondition fears over time, with practice and support when necessary.

As I practiced driving in these situations, I reminded myself that my reactions were automatic, and I tried to detach myself from them, focusing instead on the motor movements I needed to perform to drive the car. The fear started to subside even more quickly than I thought it would. Within a couple of weeks, I was using the less-busy expressways in our city with ease, and with much, much weaker fear reactions. I began challenging myself by driving longer distances, on busier stretches of interstate, through traffic, and even straight over the Great Smoky Mountains (which was not expressway, but still something I would have never done just a year ago). Yes, there was anxiety, and there still is in certain situations, but I’ve come a long way in a short time, and taking the interstate feels normal to me again. I sometimes wonder why I was ever so scared.

Giving Up Restriction May Feel More Scary than Giving Up Binge Eating

When it comes to recovering from an eating disorder, I think this discussion may apply more to giving up restrictive dieting than it does to giving up the binge eating itself. You may want to lose weight or maintain a low weight, and therefore fear eating normal amounts of food or certain types of food. In order to avoid the anxiety and fear that eating (and thoughts of gaining weight from eating) causes, you may try to stick to a strict diet, which becomes habitual, and also leads to urges to binge that are impossible to resist because you are not eating enough food.

If you’ve become so used to trying to restrict, it may feel scary to sit down to a normal-sized meal. Regardless of the reason you started dieting in the first place, dieting has become your habit and eating normally has become linked to the fear response. Because it feels scary to stop dieting, you may keep avoiding normal eating just to avoid those uncomfortable anxious thoughts and feelings. But, avoiding your fear over and over only perpetuates the problem and makes the harmful habits stronger.

Once you realize that you need to eat enough food in order to quit the binge eating habit, and in order to have freedom and health in general, you’ll have motivation to change. (To learn more about the importance of ending dieting, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).

However, just like with my driving, wanting to change doesn’t make the habit automatically go away. You will need to eat normally despite the anxiety and fear response you experience around food.  You have to know that you can still control your motor movements to pick up the food and put it in your mouth. This takes a lot of courage initially, probably more so than me merging onto the expressway the first several times; but it is well worth it. As you repeat the act of eating normally, the more normal it becomes until the desires to restrict fades, and normal eating becomes your new habit.

It’s common for people to think that restrictive dieters or anorexics have an abundance of self-control because they avoid eating. But the error in this logic is this: what looks like self-control to an outsider is actually far from it. It takes much more self-control for an anorexic or restrictive dieter to eat normally in spite of her anxiety and fear than it does for her to keep restricting. Once the restrictive eating is a habit and there is a fear response linked to normal eating, then avoidance of eating for the dieter or anorexic is just like a binge eater following urges to binge, and just like me avoiding the expressway when I was afraid. An anorexic feels automatically driven to restrict in the same way a bulimic feels driven to binge—her restriction is not a sign of willpower.

You Can Experience Fear of Stopping Binge Eating, and Still Stop Binge Eating

If you have fears about giving up binge eating itself, the same concepts I’m talking about here can apply. You can realize that it’s possible to experience fear of giving up the habit without allowing that fear to lead you in the wrong direction. As you continue not acting on binge urges, in spite of the fear, the less the fear will arise until being binge-free becomes your new normal. Then, you’ll wonder why you were ever scared of letting the behavior go.

Deconditioning the link between your fear responses and your behaviors can take time and practice. Sometimes—even if you are doing well—situations can catch you off guard, and you may find yourself anxious about giving up dieting or binge eating. But if you can remember that you maintain control of your motor movements, and focus on that, it can help you keep performing the actions that move you toward recovery, regardless of what messages you might be receiving from your brain.

There was a time while I was re-learning to drive on the expressway when my fear caught me by surprise. Because of a wrong turn, I ended up having to go over a very tall interstate bridge that I had not planned on taking. As soon as I realized where the road was leading me and there was no way out, I started to panic. I was shaking and felt terrified, but I also knew I had to keep control of my motor movements, as I had 3 young kids in the backseat depending on me.

I was caught off guard in a situation I’d never had to handle before during this process, and it wasn’t easy; but because I focused on what I could control, instead of the fear, it became doable. This is how athletes are able to compete in pressure situations—by focusing on the exact motions they need to perform, instead of their anxiety.

People have conquered much bigger fears than driving on the interstate and learning to eat normally, and that’s not to minimize your problem; but I do think it’s important to remember that everyone experiences fear. I’m not saying you have to go face all of your fears right now, but I do want to encourage you by telling you that it’s okay to be scared and that being fearful doesn’t need to get in the way of recovery. I understand that it’s easy to become complacent in avoiding the things that cause anxiety. The thought of facing a fear may initially feel intimidating, but it’s well worth it to change harmful habits or challenge yourself to accomplish new things.

*Update 2020:
Since this post, I have taken many road trips, the longest of which required me to be behind the wheel of my car for 46 hours over 11 days. The panic sensations I used to experience are gone. My old fear of driving seems so distant now and makes me grateful for the plasticity of the brain. I hope this post encourages you to get out of your comfort zone in recovery or in other areas of your life. I also want to add that I recently
interviewed the author of the book, F*ck Fear (Richard Kerr), and I think you will benefit from hearing his extremely helpful perspective in Episode 65:  Managing Anxious Feelings During a Crisis, in Everyday Life, and in Bulimia Recovery

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As you are changing your harmful eating patterns, it can be helpful to have some guidance along the way. I’ve created Course that you can listen to daily, in order to stay focused on becoming binge-free.