[This is the Part III post of the Binge Eating Recovery During a Crisis series. Read Part I and Part II]
No, I’m not going to tell you all of the reasons why your situation right now could help you conquer binge eating. I’m not going to tell you that because of the pandemic and isolation, you’ll have more time at home, and therefore you can focus on self-care and that will make quitting easier. I’m not going to tell you that because you’re eating in your house in most cases, you can be more mindful during your meals and learn to listen to your body. I’m not going to tell you that a lack of social engagements will lead to less pressure to look a certain way, which will help you let go of dieting. I’m not going to say that because you won’t be taking vacations, or having celebrations, or eating at restaurants, you will have less temptation and it will be easier to avoid binges. I’m not going to say that because you may have less money and less ability to shop, you will have less of an opportunity to buy binge food.
Even if some of what I just said feels like it might be true for you, and even if you think it will be easier to work on recovery during this time of isolation, the purpose of this blog post is not to tell you that isolation is an ideal time to quit binge eating. I do not believe that recovery depends on your circumstances—whether we are talking about a worldwide crisis or personal events in your life.
I believe that every day is an opportunity to recover, and I want to help you learn how to conquer binge eating no matter what situation you are in.
Of course, it absolutely makes sense to take advantage of whatever uniquely works for you, so if there are aspects of self-isolation that seem to help you feel more capable of recovery, then there is nothing wrong with using the circumstances to support yourself in ending the habit. However, even if that’s not the case for you, and even if you feel like this time of self-isolation is making recovery more challenging, it is still an opportunity to overcome this habit for good.
The “Right” Time to Recover is Illusive
The reality is that there will never be a perfect time to conquer binge eating disorder or end bulimia. You can go back to Part I of this blog series, and see that no matter what is going on in your life, your lower brain will always produce reasons to binge. It’s important to accept that whenever you attempt to quit, you will have thoughts saying why “now” is not a good time—whether “now” is during the holidays, on a vacation, while you are trying to meet a work deadline or study for an exam, when you are going through a breakup, while you are trying to make a big decision, or when you are just dealing with everyday stress (*for more, listen to Episode 13: How to Stop Binge Eating Under Stress).
You may be thinking, “But, this is different! It’s a global crisis! I’m filled with anxiety and uncertainty and stress and financial hardship and new responsibilities that I can’t manage!”
That is true, and you should have an abundance of compassion for yourself because this isn’t easy; but I also want you to understand that anxiety, uncertainty, stress, financial hardship, responsibilities, and even global pandemics do not cause binges. If you follow my blog or podcast (or you’ve read my books), you know that I believe recovery becomes much more simple and practical if you separate your life’s problems from your binge eating problems. (If you are new to this approach to recovery, you can download my free eBook, The Brain over Binge Basics.)
A Chance to Experience Your Power to Conquer Binge Eating Under Any Circumstance
Perhaps the greatest benefit of recovering now is that it gives you a clear opportunity to separate your life’s problems (and world problems) from binge eating. It also gives you the opportunity to recover in the midst of imperfect eating, which I wrote about in Part II: Accept Imperfection & Avoid Binge Eating During Quarantine. If you can recover now, despite everything that’s going on, just imagine how confident you’ll feel moving forward and remaining binge-free after this crisis. You’ll know that no matter what life throws your way, you never have to binge.
Right now, you may be telling yourself that you’ll recover “when things get back to normal”.
But, I want you to take a moment and think back to before this pandemic…were you binge-free then?
If you were binge-free and you started to binge again during this crisis, then I hope this blog series will help you get back on track, and help you be more prepared to stay binge-free in the future, even through major stress. If you were not binge-free before the coronavirus crisis, then remind yourself that normalcy did not equal freedom from binge eating then, and normalcy will not equal freedom from binge eating after this crisis.
If you think you can only recover when life is going a certain way, it’s going to be extremely difficult to maintain recovery over time—because life will not always go that way. I’m going to draw an analogy here that I hope will help you see this more clearly.
Don’t Tie your Recovery to Specific Conditions
As a parent, I’ve watched a lot of kids’ movies over the years, and this image from the end of Finding Nemo popped into my mind this week—in relation to social distancing, and in relation to binge eating (as I’ll explain later). If you haven’t seen the movie, the fish in the image above create an elaborate plan to escape from a dentist’s office aquarium so that they can be free in the open water. After many challenges, they are finally successful and land in the open water. They celebrate and cheer that they are free, but then they’re hit with the realization that they are all still tied in their clear plastic bags. They look at each other and one of the fish says, “Now what?”. It’s meant to be funny and the movie simply ends there, leaving the audience to assume that they’ll eventually find their way out and into complete freedom.
Right now, during this crisis, we’re kind of like these fish—separated from each other in isolation. Our figurative plastic bags are necessary to keep us safe from the virus, and to prevent us from infecting the people around us. But, as time goes by and hopefully the virus starts to affect less and less people (which will certainly be a reason to celebrate!), we’re all going to have the question of, “now what?”.
A virus is not like a storm that simply passes and gives way to a clear blue sky, allowing us all to come out safely and worry-free. Without proof that most of us have already been exposed and are now immune, or without some kind of cure, or without a vaccine, or without some evidence that the virus won’t just pick right back up once we are together again—it’s a collective now what moment. We can only hope that the best minds in the world will put together a comprehensive answer to that question, because we can’t stay isolated forever. For us to truly conquer the virus, the virus must remain under control even after we get back to our normal lives.
In the same way, if you overcome binge eating under certain circumstances, you will only experience complete freedom if you can remain recovered when circumstances change.
I want you to know that stopping binge eating is always a reason to celebrate, and you should always be proud of your success—regardless of the circumstances. Don’t feel like you did something wrong if you changed a part of your life, or took advantage of specific conditions to support yourself in recovery (remember I said you should definitely use what works for you). However, if you think you need those conditions or need things to remain a certain way in your life in order to be binge-free, you may end up feeling like the fish trapped in the middle of the open water—wondering “now what?”.
Your freedom won’t really feel free, because you’ll be constantly trying to arrange your life to keep yourself protected from binge eating, and this can become exhausting (we all know how exhausting it’s been to try to stay protected from the virus). For example, you may feel like you always have to watch out for triggers, or eat only certain foods, or have a required amount of time for self-care, or keep yourself under a certain level of stress, or have places that you can and cannot go for fear of bingeing, or think you need to avoid some people in your life because of how they eat or comments they make about weight.
No matter where you are in recovery, or what you previously thought you needed to do to stay binge-free—this is an opportunity to move closer to complete freedom, without conditions, and even through hard times. (If you want to dive deeper into this idea, you can read my post Freedom: Reframing Your Motivation to Stop Binge Eating.)
Ending the Habit Now and For Good
Your circumstances have undoubtedly changed in recent weeks, and they will undoubtedly change even more before this crisis wanes, and they will change again as we start to move back toward normalcy. This is a chance to experience the freedom of going through these changes, and even feel like your life is being turned upside down, and still avoid binges.
Additionally, on the other side of this crisis, you’ll have a chance to experience the freedom of going back into the world—and revisiting all of your former stressors and temptations—and to still avoid binges. The past several weeks and the next several weeks might bring the most change in your daily activities that you’ll ever experience. If you can remain binge-free, or make any amount of progress in weakening this habit, you will feel your own power and potential to conquer binge eating under any circumstance.
You might be having thoughts saying, “But what’s the point? Doesn’t it make sense to just wait to recover until this crisis has passed?”
You do not have to give value to thoughts like that—just like you don’t have to give value to thoughts that encourage you to binge. In fact, any thought that discourages recovery IS a binge-encouraging thought, and should be dismissed. You know there is always a reason to recover, and you know you want freedom even in challenging and difficult times. There are certainly things that have to wait until this crisis is over—like having a party or going to an amusement park—but recovery is not something that has to wait (even though your lower brain will tell you it’s not the “right” time). Binge eating is not helping you in any way during this crisis; it’s only making the whole situation harder and harming your health in the process. There is no reason to keep hanging on to the habit right now, or ever.
Once you stop binge eating, you’ll realize that the “benefits” your lower brain told you the habit was giving you—like distraction, or pleasure, or an escape from reality—were not benefits after all, and the idea of binge eating to feel better in any way will no longer make sense. And, it usually doesn’t take much time to realize this. To encourage you, I want to end this blog series with a short message I received from a woman who recently recovered using this approach, and now fully realizes that binge eating is not a viable coping strategy:
“I have been 90 days binge free and even during this crisis I haven’t even thought about going back to handling life like that, makes no sense to me now. I was sick for 20 years.”
I hope that one day, the idea of binge eating in response to any circumstance does not make sense to you either. I also hope this 3-part blog series has helped you in some way during this difficult time. Remember that you can’t always change your circumstances, but every day can be an opportunity to learn how to conquer binge eating and change the pathways in your brain to erase the habit for good.
P.S. I hope you and your family are safe and healthy, and continue to stay well. I want to mention here that I got a lot of emails asking for advice with specific aspects of recovering during this crisis. I wrote this 3-part series to address as many questions as I could, as thoroughly as I could; but I apologize if I did not cover all of the questions. I want to thank you for reaching out, but please know I’m not able to respond to every email, in order to focus on my family. Thank you for understanding and for reading my blog!
[This is the Part II post of the Binge Eating Recovery During a Crisis series. Read Part I]. This is an unprecedented time, and no one is handling these sudden life changes perfectly; and no one is handling their anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness perfectly either. You may find yourself feeling lost, distracted, and questioning so much in your life. How can you best protect yourself and others from becoming sick? How are you going to work through quarantine and provide for your family? How is your business going to survive? How are you going to home school your children? How are you going to continue pursuing a hobby or sport that you love? How are you going to keep exercising? and…
How are you going to eat during quarantine? The answer to this question and all of the others is: imperfectly. If you are struggle with binge eating, the imperfection surrounding your eating may be giving you a lot of anxiety, and I’m writing today to help you with that.
You can only do the best you can given the circumstances. You can’t expect yourself to keep it all together and have a flawless plan for every area of your life. This is not going to be a smooth ride, and we are all going to need to continue to adapt to changes in the way we live, work, connect with others, and eat.
Anxiety about imperfect eating during isolation
Even if you were able to accept some imperfection in your eating prior to this crisis, maybe it feels different now. Maybe it feels like your eating is just too far from what you consider ideal, and too different from how you were eating just a few weeks ago, and you aren’t sure what to do.
If you struggle with bulimia or binge eating disorder, your anxiety about how you are eating may be more intense than it is for people who do not have a history of binge eating, but you are definitely not alone in feeling “off” with your eating during this difficult time. I’m sure you have noticed that many people are helping themselves cope with this situation through humor, and there are a lot of memes going around that relate to eating too much or too unhealthy while at home and isolated. Although people are joking about it, that doesn’t mean they’re not distressed by it. Even people who don’t have issues with food may find themselves out of their normal eating routines, and may find themselves grazing or snacking more, or not having any structure surrounding meals.
Most people have also found themselves eating lower quality food. When another paycheck is uncertain, or nonexistent, or business is way down because people aren’t buying non-essentials, it only makes sense that we would try to do whatever we can do to spend less, and our grocery bill is one area that most of us are trying to reduce. The reality is that cheaper food is typically lower quality food. People who were previously buying higher quality food and organic food are now opting for the less expensive options, and options with longer shelf lives in case we are in our homes for a while. For most of us, this means less fresh foods and more packaged, processed foods.
Please do not criticize yourself for this. The issue of poor quality food being cheaper is something that is problematic in society, but that multifaceted issue isn’t going to be solved right now during this crisis, and it does you no good to be upset about it at this time. You simply have to deal with what is, and feeling guilty about eating more processed foods or beating yourself up over not eating organic foods isn’t going to help.
I’m not saying to just give up on health and to only buy junk food, because there are ways to spend less and still get as much nutrition as possible. But the reality is that you probably didn’t have a plan in place for that, and it’s just not your highest priority right now, and you are definitely not alone. I’m also not saying to give up on having any structure in your daily eating, because it may indeed help you to work on having meals and snacks at relatively consistent times. What I am saying is that during this crisis, your eating will likely include a significant amount of imperfection, and that goes for binge eaters and non-binge eaters alike.
A new perspective on imperfection
Instead of being frustrated by your imperfect eating or feeling like it’s a roadblock to your recovery from binge eating, you can see it as an opportunity. It provides an opportunity to accept imperfection in your eating, and still not binge. It provides an opportunity to learn that you are not powerless around foods you may have previously tried to avoid. It provides an opportunity for you to see that you can snack often, or graze too much, or be out of your normal routine, and stay binge-free. It provides an opportunity for you to realize that you don’t have to get your eating exactly “right” to recover. In fact, you can eat very “wrong” (according to your own standards, or common health advice) and still not binge.
It’s common for people with eating disorders to think that they need to eat in a certain way to prevent binges, and this is your chance to truly see that this is not the case. If you follow my work, this is not a new concept for you, and you might even be tired of me saying that you don’t need to eat perfectly to recover from binge eating. But it’s so important, and that’s why I consistently remind you that life can get in the way of your eating plans, and it’s okay if you don’t eat healthy all of the time, and it’s fine if you choose fast food or convenience food, and it’s normal to overeat sometimes; and despite all of that imperfection, you can you can stay binge-free. This may have sounded great to you in theory, but now is your chance to powerfully experience it for yourself.
I think when I say “it’s okay to eat imperfectly,” many people believe I’m talking about slight imperfections, like maybe stopping at a fast food restaurant once per week, or eating a few bites of chocolate after dinner, or buying regular milk instead of organic milk. But I’m actually talking about much, much more imperfection than that. You can eat fast food or processed food at every meal, or eat desert after every meal, or have most of your eating be grazing, and you can still not binge. Of course, I know you aren’t going to want to eat that way on a consistent basis, because it will negatively affect your quality of life and your health over time; but if it happens, I want you to know that you retain the ability to avoid binges.
Eating imperfections will happen throughout your life, not just during quarantine
It doesn’t take a crisis of the magnitude we’re dealing with now to throw off eating habits, or to influence your food buying decisions. Even after this crisis passes, life will continue to throw problems your way that seem to interfere with how you want to eat. If you can learn now, during this crisis, that imperfect eating does not have to lead to binge eating, you will set yourself up to be able to withstand any change in your eating habits in the future, and roll with it, and never let it send you back into binge eating.
I’ve been wanting to share this for a while, but I simply haven’t gotten around to it. I often say how I personally do not eat perfectly, and that’s true every day; but in 2019, I had the longest stretch of low quality eating that I can remember. I went through a divorce last year, and although I know this is not even remotely close to what many people have to deal with in their lives (and what many people are dealing with during this crisis), it was still very difficult in it’s own way. The process was long and draining, and it was stressful emotionally, mentally, and physically. I found that I had so much to deal with and so much on my mind (and I wanted to focus so much on my children) that I just didn’t want to put much effort into my food choices.
It seemed like I just didn’t have enough energy to go around. I ate whatever was fastest and easiest and cheapest, and a lot of times that looked like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fast food, or leftover mac and cheese from the kids’ dinner the night before. It wasn’t all poor-quality food. I did make an effort to keep some easy, healthy foods around too, like nuts, carrot sticks, and apples; and I took vitamins and drank healthy protein shakes. I also tried to cook for my kids, but they are super-picky and I just didn’t have the energy to push them to try new things during this time, so even my “cooking” wasn’t much of an improvement over convenience food.
I wouldn’t say that I overate during this time-frame, at least not in any way that I’d consider out of the range of normal. I knew in the back of my mind that this way of eating was temporary, and that I was just trying to get through the days in the best way I could; and indeed, late last year I started craving healthier foods again and putting more effort into cooking and nourishing myself (although now, with the coronavirus crisis, we are back to easier and cheaper foods).
During the divorce process when my eating was less-than-ideal, I never once felt like I was using those lower quality foods to help me cope emotionally, and I never thought that those foods were making me feel better in any way (listen to Episode 39: Emotional Attachment to Binge Eating for more about the relationship between food and emotions). I never felt like it was comfort eating or emotional eating, and I primarily ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full (but not perfectly!). The type of eating that would have actually provided comfort would have been for someone to make a delicious, healthy meal for me. I just didn’t prioritize doing that for myself.
I knew I retained the ability to put in the extra effort to buy and prepare better food, but my choice to have convenience food seemed worth it to me at the time, to save energy. I knew rationally that the added effort to eat better would have possibly provided a net gain in my energy, but it simply didn’t happen…because like I keep saying, I’m not perfect:-). I’m sharing this because you might find yourself feeling the same way during this crisis.
I’m so far removed from the binge eating habit that any thoughts related to binge eating never crossed my mind. What did cross my mind however, was how thankful I am that almost 15 years ago I disconnected stress and binge eating, and I also disconnected imperfect eating and binge eating, so that now stress and imperfect eating don’t send me back into bingeing. I’m thankful that long ago, I stopped believing that recovery depended on my life’s circumstances, or on my stress level, or on my emotional state, or on my eating choices. If I still believed recovery depended on those things, 2019 would have been a prime time for relapse, and now 2020 as well because I’m right back to more stress and lower quality eating.
If you’ve binged during this crisis…
I want to say here that if you’ve acted on binge urges during this coronavirus crisis or during another difficult time in your life, I don’t want you to criticize yourself for it, and I don’t want you to think it means you won’t recover. Those of you who read my books know that even after I stopped linking my emotional problems to my binge eating problems, and even after I shifted to the brain-based perspective that led to my freedom from binge eating, I still acted on two more urges to binge. And, I acted on those urges when things were relatively normal in my life, aside from typical daily problems.
I was thinking today about how my recovery might have looked differently if a big, stressful event like my divorce or the coronavirus crisis would have happened around the time I learned to stop acting on urges to binge. Due to conditioned, habitual patterns, my binge urges did appear more often in times of stress than non-stress (listen to Episode 13: How to Stop Binge Eating Under Stress for help with this), and my binge urges did appear more when I ate more junk foods, although I definitely still had urges when I was otherwise happy and when I was eating well.
There were other problems during the time of my recovery that gave me practice disconnecting binge eating from difficult life circumstances, negative emotions, and imperfect eating; but if a life-altering crisis would have occurred alongside of my recovery, is it possible that I would have had an increase in my urges to binge? Absolutely. And, is it possible that because of the increased urges, I might have been tempted to act on more of them before stopping the habit for good? Yes, it’s definitely possible…although I do believe that because I saw the urges for the false, lower-brain messages that they were, and because I realized the binge eating wasn’t helping me cope with anything, I wouldn’t have kept acting on the urges for long.
I’m saying this here because I want you to give yourself forgiveness and compassion if you’ve been following binge urges more during this stressful time when there’s so much imperfection in your eating. Yes, you might be facing challenges that people who recovered at other times didn’t have to face, but you can also recognize the opportunity inherent in recovering now. You can recognize the opportunity to experience your own sense of choice and control in a powerful way, as you prove to yourself that imperfect eating does not need to lead to binge eating. Despite all of the negative feelings and thoughts you understandably have right now, you can also experience the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes when you don’t get your eating exactly right, but you also don’t use that as a reason to just give up and binge.
You aren’t giving up on the rest of your life during quarantine. Don’t give up on recovery from binge eating.
I want you to think about the rest of your life during this crisis. Your kids can’t go to school…does that mean they should just give up on trying to learn anything during this time? You might not be able to do your normal job right now, or you may be restructuring the way you work…does that mean you should just give up on your job or on trying to find other work? You can’t get together with many of the important people in your life…does that mean you should just give up on those relationships? The answer to all of these questions is of course not; you aren’t giving up on what’s important to you just because there are challenges, changes, and isolation.
If you are reading this, I know how important it is for you to become binge-free, so I want you to consistently remind yourself that imperfection in your eating does not mean you should just give up and binge.
An opportunity to see that you aren’t powerless over certain foods
If you’ve previously been of the mindset that lower-quality foods, or processed foods, or sugary foods, or too many carbs cause binge eating, this is your opportunity to show yourself that this is not the case. This is your opportunity to realize that the urges to binge cause binge eating. *If you are new to this approach, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics to learn more about the urges to binge and how to stop acting on them.
This is an opportunity to see that no food makes you powerless, and no food makes you destined to binge. It’s also an opportunity to realize that imperfect eating isn’t going to lead to your weight spiraling out of control. I realize that everyone is different and weight is dependent on many complex factors, and I cannot predict or guarantee anything as far as what may happen to your weight, but I do know that when you are not bingeing on the imperfect foods, you are so much less likely to experience weight gain.
More about weight…
If before this crisis, you were eating high quality foods, plus bingeing (on either low or high quality foods), you were likely eating much, much more overall than if you were to just eat low quality food in a normal way, without binges. So, it’s possible you could even lose weight during a time of significantly imperfect eating, provided you reduce or stop binge eating. But, what happens to your weight is not the most important thing right now, and this crisis also provides an opportunity for you to focus on what truly matters to you, and to put your weight concerns in perspective. I only wanted to mention weight here because I know that some people interpret my suggestion to accept imperfect eating as me saying to accept weight gain too because imperfect eating is going to make you gain weight. But that is not the case, and you can get more information about weight and binge eating recovery in my post, “So, How Do I Lose Weight?”
I talked earlier about how even normal eaters are making jokes about not eating well, and not exercising, and gaining weight during this time; but I want you to notice that after this crisis, the vast majority of people will look the same. Everyone has a unique weight range that their body wants to maintain, and it makes physiological adaptations to keep weight in that range. If you are doing your best to eat normal amounts, your body will naturally keep you in your general set range (or pull you back toward that set range if you’ve previously been dieting restrictively and/or bingeing).
I fully realize that this weight topic I’m briefly touching upon is complex, but please try to trust your body during this time (and always), and realize that you don’t have control over everything. You can’t control what’s going on in the outside world right now (aside from following recommendations about keeping yourself and others safe), and you can’t control what’s going on inside of you and what your metabolism might possibly do in reaction to how you are eating. But, you can avoid binges, and that can help your metabolism regulate over time and help you body find it’s own natural, healthy weight.
An opportunity to accept imperfection
There are so many things to be upset about right now, but your imperfect eating doesn’t have to be one of them. Try to see this as an opportunity to learn to dismiss binge urges even when you are dealing with eating challenges and changes, because you will have times of imperfect eating throughout your life. If you can avoid binges now—while you are home with the food, and while you are out of your normal routine, and while you are eating differently than you were before—you can avoid binges through any difficult time, and for the rest of your life.
[Go to Part III]
If you want more help learning to avoid binges, you can down my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.
You can also get access to over 120 tracks to guide you in recovery in the Brain over Binge course (only $10.99 per month).