In order to end the binge eating habit, it’s necessary to stop acting on the urges to binge. You are trying to de-condition a habit, and to do that, you want to stop reinforcing the brain pathways that leads you to binge. Once the binge urges no longer lead to binge eating, the brain will gradually stop producing the urges. This is because the brain has the ability to change based on the actions you take or don’t take, and this is called neuroplasticity.
In my books, blog, and on the Brain over Binge podcast, I share ideas and principles to help you avoid acting on binge urges, and you can get all of the basics in my free PDF. You can also read many additional ideas and insights in Part I of this blog series. But I want you to know that, when it comes to how to stop acting on urges to binge, there isn’t one exact “right” way, and different ideas work better for different people. Also, the experience of avoiding a binge feels a little different for everyone. I’ve found that the best tips for using the Brain over Binge approach and for recovery itself come from the people who have succeeded.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of women and men describe their own experiences and what helps them detach from binge urges and stop acting on them. I want to share the experience of one woman below, who explained to me what was helping her, and gave me permission to share it on my blog. I really liked the analogy she described, which helped her visualize herself as separate from the urges to binge. Hearing someone else’s experience can spark your own insights, and help you change your own perspective in a helpful way. I hope you benefit from reading her tips and success story:
While I was reading Brain over Binge, I had a light bulb moment. What the light bulb illuminated: “This book could be a real game changer for me. Am I ready to take the big step of having my game with food entirely change? Yes, I am!” And indeed, I am on Day 37 binge-free. I truly feel that binge eating has moved into my past.
My problem with resisting binge urges, for many years, can be summed up with one word: inevitability. It sounds ridiculous to me now, but I truly believed, for the longest time, that my binge eating was inevitable, handed down from above, totally out of my control. What helped me to overcome it unfolded in a series of steps: I happened to be reading, in the book 59 Seconds, a review of several different studies on what factors most enable people to achieve big long-term goals. When I looked at the list of factors, one of them stood out: “Go public.” The author recommended, based on solid evidence, that if you want to achieve something big, you should announce it to the world—kind of like giving a press conference. As a result of that tip, I got online and went in search of a public forum, a place where people announce their goals and give each other support, and announced my big project.
The next step, based on something else I read in 59 Seconds, was setting “mini goals.” One of the tried and true techniques in accomplishing a big goal, is to break the project up into smaller sub-goals, and work on them one at a time. So I set myself my first mini-goal: “Go 30 days without any binge-type eating.” (I think the longest I’d ever gone between binges was 13 days.)
The next step came, then, when I was putting techniques from Brain over Binge to work, where the rubber meets the road, in dealing with a real-life urge to binge. What it felt like, to me, was a mental feat. Since my most recent experience with pulling off mental feats is memorization (at the advanced age of 58) of vocabulary in a foreign language, I found myself reaching for one of the mental tools I’ve learned—specifically, vivid imagery (visual plus other senses) with some sort of action going on.
Let me formulate this as a tip for you, in confronting your own urges to binge. As soon as the urge arises, look for some way of dramatizing, in pictures and sounds, how you, as the higher self, are very separate from the binge urge, which is “neurological junk.” For example, I thought of myself as a cool cerebral character playing chess, in a room where a ridiculous little yappy dog (the urge to binge) is trying to get me to play fetch with it. I imagined the dog as having a high-pitched yelp of a voice, barking away, and I imagined it holding the ball in its mouth and doing everything in its power to get my attention—butting my legs, knocking against the chess board, and so on.
Meanwhile, I am not exactly ignoring it: I am merely observing its frantic, silly behavior while I contemplate my next chess move. (Since I’m a higher being, I can do both of those things at once.) I’m not saying anything to the dog, nor am I reacting to it in any way. I don’t need to tell you the end of this story, because it’s obvious: the yappy dog eventually gives up and wanders off into another room.
You can use, adapt, that little drama however you like, or better yet, come up with a new one of your own, but take care to make the scenario very specific (imagine the dog’s little ratty tail), with more than one sense (visual, auditory, etc.) involved, with some kind of action taking place. The more ridiculous—even humorous—you make the urge to binge appear, the more easily you can be in the role of cool, calm, collected observer.
I’ve had very few urges to binge since coming up with the yappy-dog scenario, and the ones that have arrived are so attenuated, they just float up briefly into my consciousness and drift away. To reinforce the thought that my binge urges are in the past, a couple of times I have visualized myself actually bingeing, and I’ve observed how the visualization, as if made of old fragile film stock, has a lot of little white and black blobs obscuring the view, like pixelated static, as it drifts further and further into the past. 37 days may not seem very long, but believe me, that behavior is ancient history. The last time an urge to binge surfaced, I just thought, “What’s this? We don’t do that anymore!” and the urge went poof! and vanished.
Thanks to all of you who’ve read this far, and best of luck in getting your own urges to binge into ancient history!
I created the Brain over Binge blog to give you a variety of tips, ideas, information, and insights to go along with my two books. Even if you haven’t read the books, you can benefit from my posts, especially if you’ve learned the basics of the Brain over Binge approach in my free PDF or by listening to my podcast. I hope what I have written so far on the blog, and what I will write in the future, will help you toward freedom from binge eating.
This post and the next (Tips to Help You Achieve Recovery, Part 2) will be a central part of the Brain over Binge blog, because I’m writing it for people who need extra help in recovery. This two-part blog series will give you additional ideas if you are struggling to stop binge eating, and if you are having a difficult time letting the binge urges pass rather than acting on them. I’ve heard from many women and men who understand the Brain over Binge approach and know they have the ability to avoid binges, but they still find themselves following the binge urges. (For more about the urges, listen to Episode 2: The Cause of Binge Eating: Urges to Binge).
Are You Having Trouble Avoiding Binges?
The first thing I want to tell you is that not everyone stops acting on binge urges immediately. Even if you develop a new and empowering perspective about your binge eating, and even if you know that you are capable of overcoming the harmful habit without needing to solve other problems first, that doesn’t mean your recovery will be automatic. You are on your own path, and different ideas work for different people in different ways. That’s not to give you excuses, because you have the ability to end binge eating for good, but you always want to have self-compassion along the way. Being self-critical is not an effective way to move toward change.
To help you create the change you want, I’m going to list some common obstacles that may be getting in the way of you successfully avoiding binges, and I’ll explain how you can move past these obstacles. I’ll also share and link to other useful posts and resources on the Brain over Binge blog and website so that you can get more information to support your recovery.
Recovery Obstacle #1: You Are Arguing With the Binge Urges
Several people have asked if there was anything specific I did or told myself to detach from the urges to binge. Besides briefly reminding myself of the brain-based information I’d learned and the fact that those urge thoughts and feelings weren’t truly me, there wasn’t any specific mental dialogue or action that helped me separate from my lower brain—the primitive part of the brain that created my urges. (You can listen to Episode 3 and Episode 5 for more information about the lower and higher brain). I simply accepted the experience of the urges, without letting those urges affect me and lead me into a binge.
I think trying to have any sort of mental dialogue with the urges to binge is counterproductive, because it engages the lower brain. The lower brain sends automatic messages to try to get you to maintain a habit it senses you need, and there’s nothing you can say to yourself to make those messages go away. Actually, the more you try to say things to yourself, the more you end up arguing with the urges; and you therefore give the urges more attention and significance, which makes them stronger.
I’m going to use an analogy to try to explain this:
Let’s say you are in an argument with someone, and you are listening, getting upset, and arguing back. Your words and actions are helping to fuel the disagreement. Whatever you say, the person has a counterargument, and emotions run high. But, if you eventually realize that arguing is futile and not worth your time, you will just quit listening and letting the person’s words affect you. You will still hear what they are saying, and you will still have the experience of being in an argument, but that experience will suddenly feel very different. The person’s words will no longer make any difference to you, and you’ll no longer feel so emotionally charged. That’s detachment. That’s how you can experience the urges to binge.
You don’t need to announce that the urges aren’t worth your time. You don’t need to say “I’m not listening anymore.” Detachment is a mental shift that you can make without any dialogue with the urge thoughts. You can just let the lower brain do what it’s been conditioned to do, without reacting to it, and it will eventually fall silent.
Recovery Obstacle #2: You Are Letting Binges Lead to More Binges
After learning information about the lower/higher brain, completely changing how I understood my bulimia, and realizing that I had the power to stop acting on urges—I still binged two more times. But, I didn’t see the binges as a sign of failure or as an indication that I couldn’t be successful with my new approach to recovery. I saw that I had simply acted on urges to binge, but that it was not inevitable for me to act on binge urges that would follow. After those two binges, I didn’t feel like I had to start over, or find a new approach. I just took a look at what happened, and saw how I could prevent it from happening again. I explained this in more detail in my first book: Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good.
If you have a binge while you are trying to recover, don’t make it mean more than it does. It doesn’t mean you won’t recover, it doesn’t mean you can’t utilize your higher brain more effectively next time. Something helpful you can do is to mentally go back to determine what led you to act on the urge. I’m not talking about figuring out what events or feelings “triggered” the binge, I’m talking about determining how the urge itself led you into the binge. How did your lower brain get what it wanted? What binge-encouraging thoughts did you believe? When did you lose that detachment and separation from the urges?
You might feel discouraged about a binge, and that’s okay, but by analyzing what happened, you can keep the binge in perspective. You may realize it was just one enticing thought that hooked you and made you decide to follow the urge. You’ll be prepared to experience the next urge without believing the lower brain’s faulty messages.
Recovery Obstacle #3: You Feel Like You Want to Binge
In Brain over Binge, I also talked about how learning to stop acting on binge urges wasn’t truly difficult for me, but it was tricky at first. My lower brain could be deceptive, and by far the most tempting and common reason it gave me to binge was because I simply wanted to. I had thoughts telling me that it didn’t matter what part of my brain generated my urges, because I wanted to binge nonetheless. I had thoughts telling me I should definitely follow my urges because a binge was my true desire. As long as I stayed detached from those thoughts and viewed them as meaningless, they could not affect me.
This topic of wanting to binge comes up a lot in those who are trying to recover, so I’ve addressed this issue in two other posts on the Brain over Binge blog: Is “Wanting to Binge” Holding You Back in Recovery? and Do You Want to Recover?: Why It Sometimes Feels Like You Want to Keep Binge Eating.
It’s so important to be able to dismiss ANY thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. This includes those messages that tell you binge eating is worth it, or that it is really you that wants to binge. You don’t need to disagree with those thoughts or try to argue them away, because like I talked about earlier, that doesn’t work; but you can remain unaffected by those thoughts and feelings until they pass.
Recovery Obstacle #4: You Are Not Eating Enough
I’ve brought this up a lot on the blog so far, but I believe it’s the most common reason for struggling in binge eating recovery. If you are not eating adequately, you are keeping your body and brain in survival mode, and I truly believe that urges that arise because of food restriction are harder to dismiss than urges that arise due to habit. Eating less than you need is not compatible with the Brain over Binge approach. If you think this may be a problem for you, these two blog posts will give you some useful information as you give up dieting: Weight Gain From Binge Eating Recovery? and What are Your Motivations for Dieting?
Recovery Obstacle #5: You Need Additional Guidance in Recovery
Some people can read a book or learn the basics of a new approach, and then apply it with consistency—without any additional help. But, this is not always the case. Most people need to have a way to reinforce what they’ve learned, or need some questions answered along the way, or need additional clarity about how this approach applies to their specific situation, or need some help staying focused as they put an end to binge eating.
There are many ways you can get additional guidance, clarity, and reinforcement—and that may be outside of the Brain over Binge blog and website—but if you resonate with my approach and would like extra help and additional recovery resources, I want to tell you that I’ve created the Brain over Binge Course to serve as a powerful way to keep you on track and moving toward freedom from binge eating. I’ve also made sure that it’s affordable for anyone who is committed to ending binge eating (you can get access to the course for only $10.99 per month)
As a part of this course, I’ve recorded detailed answers to 84 questions I’ve been asked over the years, so that you can get the information, ideas, and advice that you need to support yourself on your journey to freedom from binge eating.
Here is what one course member had to say:
This course is exactly what I needed to hear! I’ve read countless books on the BED-topic (including Brain over Binge) before, without any success. The course is full of deep insights and packed with valuable and practical information. I really appreciate the rational and organized form everything is presented. I’m exceedingly thankful for the course – it has really changed my life! THANK YOU!!!
Continue to Part 2 of this blog series.