Episode 35: Fostering a Positive Mindset in Recovery: Interview with Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.

What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part III (You Don’t Need to Work so Hard)

This is the 3rd and final post in my blog series, “What Makes Recovery Work?”.  In Part I, I talked about expectations surrounding what it means for a recovery method to work.  In Part II, I discussed the work you personally need to do in recovery, which is to dismiss each urge to binge (and also eat enough food).  Now in Part III, I want to talk about eliminating unnecessary work in recovery.

When I was in therapy for binge eating, it felt like I had a lifelong journey of work ahead of me in order to stop the harmful behavior and then to maintain my recovery.  But, since then, I’ve seen that it’s not necessary to work so hard to put aside the binge eating habit.

I know you aren’t afraid of doing work; I know you aren’t expecting recovery to be effortless; and I know you are willing to do what it takes to stop your binge eating. Working hard is certainly not a bad thing, but if right now, you feel that your hard work hasn’t gotten you closer to freedom from binge eating, you may be doing work that isn’t actually targeting the binge eating problem.

Commonly, in traditional eating disorder therapy, the work that is required has to do with managing emotions, healing pain from your past, and learning to cope better with daily stress. This is meaningful work that can help improve your life, but if it isn’t helping you avoid acting on the binge urges, it’s not helping with the binge eating specifically.

It can be baffling when you feel you are doing all of the hard work that therapy requires and you are still binge eating.  If you find yourself in this situation, you may understandably start to look for something else to work on, and then something else after that.  This can lead to a constant state of trying to find another problem to solve, or something else within yourself to fix, hoping it will eventually put an end to your binge eating.

You may also be working on improving and fixing the way you are eating, thinking that will get rid of the binge episodes.  You may be trying to create the perfect meal plan, or trying to adhere to strict eating guidelines, so you may be working hard every day measuring, counting, and weighing your food intake.  Additionally, you could be going through a lot of trouble to avoid certain foods that you believe are problematic or addicting, or you may be trying to research nutrition and take all of the right supplements.

Although improving your eating in ways that feel good to you is a positive thing, and although it’s certainly important to make sure you eat adequately, it’s possible you are putting a lot of unnecessary time and energy into your eating plan, without it making much of a difference in your binge eating.  It can feel like a never-ending quest when you are always looking for something else to fix or change about your diet, hoping that will put a stop to the binges.

If you think a lot of hard work is required for recovery, it only makes sense that you would keep looking for something else to solve or fix, whether that’s in your life, your relationships, your personality, your emotions, or the way you are eating. It’s admirable, and shows determination and resilience.  But, I know how frustrating it feels when it seems like no matter what you work on, you still end up binge eating.

What if working harder in recovery is not the answer?

It is my belief that no matter how much you improve your life, your emotional state, your relationships, your ability to cope, or the way you are eating, binge urges will still inevitably come up.  Even if you work very hard in all of those areas, you’ll still be left with the fundamental work of recovery: not acting on the binge urges.

To stop acting on the binge urges, what if less work is actually more effective?

I had a conversation with Dr. Amy Johnson on my podcast last week, and part of what we talked about was how just seeing your binge eating habit differently can allow change to occur without the struggle or without needing to work so hard. When you have a fundamental shift in the way you view your urges and respond to them, it suddenly seems unnecessary to sort out and deal with all of your other problems or have a perfect eating plan in order to stop binge eating.

So, instead of thinking “what other problems and difficult emotions can I work on in recovery?”, you can change your mindset and think, “how can I work on developing a new perspective about the urges and respond to them differently?”

Ending binge eating doesn’t need to feel like intense, complicated, or tedious work. The work can simply be you deeply seeing that the urges do not express your true wants and needs, and then learning to connect with your own power to avoid acting on them.

If you want help in increasing your ability not to act on binge urges, and you are new to the Brain over Binge approach, you can get started with my free eBook.

If you want extra guidance in making recovery work for you, you can learn more about the Brain over Binge Course which includes 17 hours of informative, practical, and encouraging audios (and an audio to help support and empower you when you are experiencing an urge to binge).

Brain over Binge Course

Episode 25: Compulsive Overeating, Emotional Eating, and Binge Eating: What are the Differences? (Interview with Cookie Rosenblum)

Episode 21: Dealing with PMS, or with Feeling “Off,” as a Recovering Binge Eater

If You Decide You Binge to Cope

If you are familiar with my blog or books, you know I hold the opinion that binge eating is not a coping mechanism for underlying emotions or life’s problems.  Instead, I believe binge eating is about coping with the urges to binge.

In the Brain over Binge approach, the urges to binge are the one and only direct cause of binge eating; and even though an indirect link can develop between binge eating and negative emotions, there is nothing inherent about those emotions that make you binge.  Furthermore, binge urges can and do arise under any emotional climate in the body, even during times of happiness or calm.

However, some people have told me they can’t let go of the idea that their binge eating is an attempt to cope with feelings or problems in their lives.  Although I still maintain that this idea can make the urges much more meaningful and compelling than they actually are, and recovery more complicated than it needs to be, I understand why it is hard for some to let go of this belief.

The idea that you binge to cope may be longstanding for you; it may be something you’ve built your identity around in some ways.  It could be that, through years of believing that binge eating was your coping mechanism (regardless of where you acquired that belief), you haven’t even tried healthy forms of coping in a very long time.  It may be difficult for you to see the urges as just faulty signals from the lower brain, because to you, it feels like the urges are signaling something emotionally meaningful.  It may feel as if the urges are pointing you toward something you need: a way to avoid your feelings or cope with problems.

If this is the case for you, you may believe that the only way to stop binge eating is to learn to manage or solve your difficult feelings and problems, and implement healthier coping behaviors.  You may feel like, if you did that, you would no longer want to binge. (This is the approach reflected in mainstream theories and therapies for eating disorders).

If you decide you binge to cope, you may be wondering if the Brain over Binge approach would be useful for you, or if it’s incompatible?

I believe it still could be useful in a very important way, and I’ll explain how and why:

If you feel that healthier coping behaviors are what you need, it’s likely that the urges to binge are preventing you from learning and using those behaviors.

When you have a binge eating habit, and therefore have urges to binge, no alternate behavior (including coping behaviors) will feel as compelling as binge eating. When your thoughts are only fixated on getting large amounts of food, the idea of doing anything else, including anything that would help you cope, is going to seem unappealing. Your brain simply isn’t driving you toward a healthy coping behavior, it’s driving you to food. Even if an alternative coping strategy would help you deal with the emotions you are experiencing, getting yourself to do it in spite of the urge to binge, can seem like a monumental task.

So, how do you get yourself to actually do the coping behavior you think will truly help you?

You first need to dismiss the urge to binge.

Dismissing the binge urge means to stop giving it value and attention, and to see the urge as not what your true self actually wants.

Even if you believe that binge eating is a coping mechanism, it doesn’t change the fact that you (in your higher brain) don’t actually want this coping mechanism.  You don’t want to binge to cope.

The urge to binge is still a faulty lower brain message, not worthy of your consideration; and you have to dismiss it in order to learn to cope.

If binge eating felt like an effective strategy for coping and it was helping in your life, then there would not be a problem for you.  But that’s not the case.  You are here trying to recover, and that means binge eating is creating pain in your life that you want to get rid of.  Even if you feel like it has a strong connection to emotions and helps you temporarily avoid certain feelings or problems, those ‘benefits’ simply don’t feel worth it to you.

You may find yourself thinking that you can’t stop binge eating until you find healthy ways to cope, but I challenge you to start considering that you can’t find healthy ways to cope until you stop binge eating.

Or, said another way…

You can’t implement any healthy coping behaviors until you learn to dismiss binge urges.

For example, if you can dismiss the urge to binge in a moment of stress, you are then free to use any coping behavior you want to deal with the actual stress–a behavior that will not cause harm to your body and mind and that will not create even more stress in your life, like binge eating does.

Regardless of when, why, or how the binge urge arises, it is still neurological junk, it is still a harmful message that your true self doesn’t actually want to follow.  You, in your higher brain, want to choose to do other things in your life that are in line with who you are and who you want to to be. Dismissing binge urges gives you the capacity to do those other things–whether those are healthy coping behaviors or anything else you want.

*If you are unfamiliar with the concept of dismissing urges, I’ve written a free eBook to help you understand and learn this approach.

Dealing with PMS as a Recovering Binge Eater

Has this happened to you?… You feel like your eating is going pretty well, and you are feeling relatively good in your life, and then suddenly, you start to feel down, and everything seems a little darker and more difficult? At the same time, do you experience an increase in appetite and food cravings?

Whether you have recently stopped binge eating or you are trying to stop, when you experience the above scenario, it might seem worrisome to you. You may think you are falling back into old patterns, or that your urges to binge are going to come back. You may be concerned that feeding an increase in appetite or satisfying cravings will condition you to eat that much all of the time, or worse, send you back into binge eating.

You may start considering that your low mood coupled with a heightened interest in food means that you actually do need food to cope in some way (even though you’ve seen over and over that it only makes problems worse). You might start to think that binge eating seems appealing, when just a few days prior, you felt completely separate from binge urges.

If this happens to you, relax a little and then go check your calendar!

There could be one simple explanation for all of it, an explanation that doesn’t involved you being on the verge of relapse, or flawed in some way; an explanation that doesn’t involve you believing that binge eating is a coping mechanism.

It could simply be PMS.

Most women experience an increase in appetite in the week leading up to menstruation, and some mood swings as well, especially low moods. That’s normal, which is not to say you can’t do certain things to help yourself feel better, but just that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you; and it doesn’t mean you are on a slippery slope back to binge eating or that your binge problem is getting worse.

Even though it’s “normal,” you may wander how to handle PMS as a recovering or newly-recovered binge eater. In this post, I’ll give you some ideas and tips…

Awareness and Acceptance

My first piece of advice is to be aware of your cycle, so that you can make the connection between low moods/increased appetite and PMS. Most women report that the symptoms start about a week before their period and resolve after menstruation begins, but PMS can last longer or be more brief in some women. If you know the cause of what you are experiencing, then it makes the temporary phase much easier to manage. Otherwise, your symptoms can catch you off guard and make you confused and frustrated.

You may experience lethargy, depression and irritability very strongly during PMS, and if you don’t make the connection to the calendar, you may think that suddenly your life’s energy has been drained. You’re likely to get upset with yourself for feeling like staying home and eating ice cream more than you feel like doing anything else…when just last week you were out in the world pursuing goals and activities you enjoyed.

Added to all of that, bloating can occur before menstruation as well, which can exacerbate negative feelings, because not only do you suddenly feel low and want to eat more, you also feel like you may be gaining weight too.  But, if you are aware of your cycle, you will know why you are bloated. You’ll be better able to prevent self-criticism, and relax in knowing that the physical and emotional symptoms will pass.

You’ll know that you’ll soon feel like your normal self again, so you can simply accept the temporary PMS phase without trying to fight it or worry that it’s a permanent state.

Listen to Your Hunger (and use your mind to help guide choices)

Your body uses more calories during the time right before your period, and although there is no clear consensus on exactly how much more energy it uses, evidence suggests that women’s bodies can require up to 15 percent more calories in the few days prior to their period. So, of course you will get hungrier and food will start to look more appealing! Don’t feel guilty about eating more during a time when your body is needing more calories.

That being said, sometimes the food that seems the most appealing during PMS are the highly-rewarding, highly-processed junk foods. While it’s of course okay to choose to have some, if you find yourself only eating those types of foods, it’s going to make you feel worse. If you can instead steer yourself in a more nourishing direction some or most of the time, and eat foods that you think will better fuel your increase in appetite, it will make you feel better physically (or at least not worse!) and even help your mood. Blood sugar fluctuations from too much sugary junk food can make mood swings more severe and make hunger more erratic. So, even if you are craving more junk food than usual during PMS, you can still use your mind to help yourself make better choices. Most people find that adding some protein and healthy fats helps them to feel more satiated and stabilizes blood sugar.

Another benefit of choosing some decent fuel for your increased appetite is that it will prevent your PMS eating from feeling similar to your binge eating. Eating more when you are hungrier should feel good, but when you’re primarily choosing junk food, it can lead your lower brain to send the message that “you’ve already failed, so you might as well binge.” You can of course dismiss that thought if it does come up, but avoiding behaviors that feel very similar to your binges is helpful.

Manage Your Moods/Physical Symptoms with Some Activity

Your body is priming you to take it easy during a time of changing hormones and increased demand on your physiology. It’s good to listen to your body and relax when you can; but also know that exercise can help elevate your mood and relieve some of your physical and emotional symptoms. Try balancing rest with physical activity (even if you don’t feel like being active in the moment) because it can shift your mindset in a powerful way.

Separate PMS Problems from Binge Eating Problems (Dismiss Binge Urges)

Having increased cravings during PMS does not mean you are on a slippery slope back to binge eating. That would mean that the vast majority of women are on a slippery slope to binge eating during a week out of every month, and we know that’s simply not true. PMS and binge eating are two separate problems, although it’s possible that over time, through your repeated behaviors, you’ve conditioned a link between the two.  It’s possible that you do have increased urges to binge prior to your period, whether that’s because you’ve made it a habit to binge during times of low moods or increased appetite and/or when you are feeling bloated. Now, when you experience those triggers, you may automatically have the urges to binge.

You may have habitual thoughts that say you are failure for eating more during PMS so you “might as well binge,” or that because you are bloated, you must be gaining weight, and then use that to illogically justify a binge. You may feel low, and then have thoughts telling you a binge will “make you feel better” (even though you know it won’t.).

The great thing about dismissing binge urges is that you don’t have to give any of these thoughts any special attention or value. Any and all thoughts/feelings that encourage binge eating are false messages from the lower brain; they don’t represent what you truly want–during PMS or on any other day of the month. When the brain sends the message that binge eating is a “solution” for anything, you know right away that’s the lower-brain’s primitive response, aimed at maintaining the habit. You know that a binge during a time of bloating, increased appetite, and/or low moods will only make all of those problems worse. Regardless of why or how the urges surface, you can learn to see all thoughts that try to justify a binge as neurological junk that you don’t need to take seriously or act upon.

*A word of caution: If your PMS feels extreme, or you have seemingly out-of-control moods swings or alarmingly depressive thoughts, please seek professional medical help for hormone issues.