Binge to cope

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.

PMS Binge Eating Recovery

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.

Am I ready for recovery from binge eating?

Am I Ready for Recovery from Binge Eating?

During my years of binge eating, and what seemed like thousands of attempts to recover (before I finally found help in Jack Trimpey’s book, Rational Recovery), I looked for the reasons why I wasn’t successful. Through therapy and reading self-help information online, one of the theories I came up with was that I simply wasn’t ready to stop binge eating. Maybe there was something I needed to change in my life first; maybe there was a problem I needed to solve; maybe there was pain from my past that I needed to heal; maybe there was a stressor that I needed to eliminate from my days. Maybe once I found and dealt with whatever was in the way of recovery, then I’d be ready.

I wasn’t even sure what it really meant to be ready to stop binge eating, but that didn’t stop me from looking for reasons why I wasn’t yet equipped for recovery. Since all of my attempts to stop binge eating (before reading Rational Recovery) had failed, it only made sense that there was something getting in the way. Now that I’ve recovered, I see things differently, and I want to help you understand why you might be asking yourself, am I ready to stop binge eating? I also want to share ideas with you to help you feel capable of stopping the habit, and to help you address anything that is truly a roadblock to recovery.

What Does it Mean to Be Ready for Recovery?

I began thinking about this a lot because of an interview I did in February of 2013. I was a guest on Alen Standish’s Quit Binge Eating Podcast (this podcast is no longer available because Alen needed to focus on a health issue in his family). Alen asked a question that inspired me to start writing this blog post about recovery readiness. His question was very insightful, and in asking it, he shared some of his own personal experience and how it was different than mine. Here is what he said:

 Alen:  You cautioned in Brain over Binge that you are only focusing on how to stop binge eating and are not addressing any other underlying problems a person may be having in their life. In my own case I actually had to work on several areas of my own life to better round myself out before I was ready to fully take on stopping my own binge eating disorder. Your book was a large part of that, but it only worked for me because I was ready for it at that point in my life. Based on my experiences and this is just my own opinion, I find that it seems to be a balancing act that only the person suffering from the disorder knows when they are ready to just say no to their disordered eating, and from that when and where to start their recovery process and most important, how to recover. It’s a very individual thing. What are your thoughts?

Below, I’ve included my response with many additional ideas added, to help you if you are doubting your readiness to end bulimia or binge eating disorder:

First of all, I think an important thing to remember when reading anyone’s recovery story, using any self-help program, or even attending therapy, is that you can use what works for you at this particular time in your life, and discard what doesn’t. Sometimes people get caught up in trying to do things exactly right, based on someone else’s advice, and it doesn’t end up feeling authentic. If someone else’s advice doesn’t help you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t ready. It just might not be the right approach for you.

My recovery came about from me discovering useful information about the brain and an approach that resonated deeply within me. This was primarily due to reading Rational Recovery, and having my own insights afterward, as well as continuing to explore simple brain science, which I discussed in my book. Once I changed how I approached recovery, the question of whether or not I was ready to stop binge eating didn’t seem to apply anymore. I put the information and insights into action, and stopped binge eating quickly. Questioning my readiness for recovery was something I did when I wasn’t successful, and once I was successful, the question seemed to just fade away.

I knew binge eating brought me misery, and I knew I didn’t want it in my life; and this was the case since my binge eating began. In that way, I guess I was always ready to recover.

I believe it can be as simple as this: If you want to be free of binge eating, you are ready to be free of binge eating.

Rational Recovery Helped Me Let Go of the “Benefits” of Binge Eating

I also realize that it’s not that simple for everyone, especially if you’ve come to believe that your eating disorder serves a purpose in your life, or helps you cope with problems, or helps you fill some sort of emotional void (see my podcast about emotional attachment to binge eating). I know that when I believed my eating disorder gave me certain benefits, it was much easier to think that I wasn’t ready to give it up. Even thought I knew that whatever theoretical benefits or temporary pleasure I received from the binge eating wasn’t worth the cost, the idea that binge eating was a coping mechanism made it easier to keep hanging on to the behavior.

In order to feel ready to let the binge eating go, I spent a long time in therapy and on my own trying to sort out things in my life and solve other problems. Some of these problems I did sort out and solve, and some of these problems I didn’t; but there was always another problem I could find and decide that I needed to fix before I could be free of binge eating.

If Rational Recovery would have been another approach saying that it might not work if you have other problems to sort out first, I don’t think it would have helped me. I needed a no excuses approach at the time. I needed to hear that whatever benefits I thought binge eating gave me were irrational and not my true thoughts. I needed to learn that I could quit right away without having to do anything else first. In other words, I needed to hear that I was already ready to let the binge eating go.

Preparation for Recovery is Different for Everyone

I’ve shared my experience, but Alen’s experience was different and uniquely authentic to him; and your experience might be different from both of ours. I agree with Alen that recovery is an individual thing and only the person recovering can decide what they need. This is why it’s important to have alternative perspectives in eating disorder recovery, because some ideas will be a better fit for certain people at certain times than other ideas.

If you read my book, or attend therapy, or complete a self-help program and you don’t improve even after giving it proper effort and practice, this is not the time to put yourself down or lose hope. It’s the time to determine how to adjust the ideas to better suit you, or it’s time look elsewhere for ideas that feel like your own unique truth and that work for you, or it’s time to decide if there is some preparation work you need to do in order to be ready to stop binge eating.

I don’t believe recovery should be a maze or that you should jump around from one approach to another, without being consistent enough to see changes occur. Recovery can and should keep moving forward, but there may come a time when you feel like you do need to work on another area of your life in order to move forward, or keep moving forward.

How Do I Become Ready to Stop Binge Eating?

I’ve spent some time thinking about a way to merge the idea that some people, like Alen, might need to work on other areas of their life in order to feel more able stop binge eating, and my approach which focuses on stopping the behavior without needing to address other issues first. Here are my thoughts…

I believe that recovery from binge eating comes down to 2 goals:  

  1. Learning to dismiss urges to binge
  2. Learning to eat adequately

If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach and want a better understanding of those two goals, you can download my free PDF—the Brain over Binge Basics.

You can use those two simple recovery goals to guide you in determining what you might need to work on, in order to make yourself recovery ready.

It’s not helpful to put too many conditions on your ability to recover, but I think it’s helpful to work on any specific issues you feel are holding you back from being successful at one or both recovery goals. You can listen to my podcast episodes about two common issues that hold people back: food addiction, and weight obsession. Basically, if you think that working on another problem or issue in your life will help you move toward the two goals, then work on that issue or problem.

Of course, you can work on whatever issue or problem you want as a way to live a better life, but try not to wrap up all of your self-improvement work into your eating disorder recovery. You don’t want to be endlessly trying to work on emotions or solve other problems, hoping that will magically make you feel ready to recover, or even take the eating disorder away. But, if you stay focused on the two recovery goals of learning to dismiss binge urges and learning to eat adequately, you can tackle recovery readiness with a much more strategic mindset. I’ll give you some examples so you can see how this could play out in your life.

Let’s say you have poor body-image, and because of that, you are determined to diet restrictively and lose weight in an attempt to feel better about yourself. That might prevent you from eating enough food, which in turn, will make your urges to binge stronger and more difficult to dismiss. If you feel unable to allow yourself a nourishing amount of food to meet your physical needs, you might need to address your poor body-image in order to move forward (for help, you can listen to this episode on body image). This doesn’t mean a positive body-image is a cure for binge eating; but improving the way you view and relate to your body will help you start feeding it properly, and therefore put you in a position to stop acting on the binge urges.

Another example: let’s say you have severe depression that prevents you from wanting a better life for yourself. You don’t have the desire to avoid binges, so you allow the lower brain (the part of the brain that drives binge eating) to overtake you, without even trying to avoid the behavior. You simply don’t have any motivation to let go of the binge eating. Again, improving the other problem (in this case, depression) isn’t a cure, but it will put you in a better position to start overcoming the binge eating. Feeling less depressed will strengthen your higher brain (the part of your brain that can change a habit), and allow you to connect with your desire to live free of your eating disorder.

To summarize what I’m suggesting: If you don’t feel ready for recovery, get to work on the issues you believe are preventing you from eating adequately or dismissing binge urges.  

In contrast, what I’m not suggesting is this: If you don’t feel ready for recovery, work on the problems or emotions that you feel binge eating helps you cope with, and expect that resolving those problems will make the binges go away.

Sometimes what I’m suggesting and what I’m not suggesting can involve the same problem. If that seems a little confusing, I’ll explain, using anxiety as an example.

Let’s say you think you binge to cope with anxiety, so you try address that anxiety by relaxing more and avoiding anxiety-provoking situations. You do this hoping that decreasing anxiety will decrease your need to binge. If the binge urges habitually come when you are anxious, this approach might indeed help you avoid some binge urges (which may be helpful in some ways), but reducing anxiety isn’t truly helping you learn how to dismiss the binge urges when they come up. There are likely other situations where you have urges, and you still binge. Furthermore, it’s impossible to control every situation and feeling in your life, so when anxiety inevitably comes up, you may find yourself swept away by the urges.

The problem with this approach to reducing anxiety is that you are trying to make a problem go away in hopes that binge urges will go away too. But, this usually doesn’t work, and it’s more effective to learn to avoid acting on urges in any situation or in response to any feeling.

On the other hand, if something about anxiety is making it more difficult for you to dismiss binge urges or eat adequately, then it makes sense that you’ll need to address it before you feel ready to stop binge eating (listen to Episode 65 on managing anxiety).  For example, if anxiety about weight gain is keeping you depriving your body of food, then yes, that anxiety is something to work on as a part of binge eating recovery. The distinction can seem subtle, but I think it’s important not to make recovery too complex or think you need to work on too many things to be ready.

I want to make sure you realize that I’m not telling you to just resign to deal with certain problems. You can absolutely work on whatever issues you want to work on, but as much as you can, keep that separate from binge eating recovery. Otherwise, you could keep working on other problems indefinitely, hoping that will take your binge eating away, without getting any closer to accomplishing the two recovery goals that change your brain to end the binge eating habit.

Although I believe recovery is an individual thing, I hope that keeping the two recovery goals in mind will help you zero in on what’s truly necessary for you to do to be ready to stop binge eating for good.

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For help learning to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.

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.