Emotions are not the cause of binge eating.
This is not always the most popular message, but once I internalized this concept, it was so freeing. It allowed me to stay binge-free no matter what was going on in my life or in my mind, because I knew that even in the darkest, loneliest, scariest times, I had the ability not to binge.
I understand that it’s often not that simple to let go of the belief that you binge because of emotions. This belief could feel very true for you right now, and I’m not here to talk you out of that. Everyone has their own experience and story, and if the idea that binge eating is because of emotions is helping you stop the behavior, then please don’t change course. This post is for people who are struggling and who can’t seem to stop bingeing no matter what emotional healing or self-improvement work they do. This is for people who sense that they can binge under any circumstance or in response to any feeling (even positive ones), and who believe that even if they could learn to cope with emotions well, they’d still want to binge. This post is also for people who sense that connecting binge eating to emotions is making things worse.
Blaming emotions makes you “need” the harmful binge eating behavior
Through my years of helping binge eaters, I’ve heard from so many who tell me that therapy or other self-help resources convinced them they binged for deep emotional reasons, and this only served to strengthen the habit, because it made them feel like they actually needed the habit to cope.
You may have indeed developed a connection between your emotions and your bingeing, I think that most people with a binge eating habit (or any habit) do. But, as I talk about in my books, this connection is indirect. Emotions don’t truly cause the bingeing, because if that were true, anyone who had strong emotions would binge, and curing emotional issues would cure binge eating.
Because of patterns you’ve developed over time, your brain may automatically urge you to binge in response to certain emotions. When you can recognize this pattern, you can gradually learn to decondition it. However, what often happens is that when you try to avoid binges, emotions can seem temporarily worse, which may cause you to give up and revert back to your old patterns. I want to help you understand this so that it doesn’t stop you from continuing toward a binge-free life.
Why do emotions feel worse when I try to stop binge eating?
There are a couple of common reasons why emotions may seem more difficult for a period of time as you are ending binge eating:
1.) You’re out of practice being with emotions without binge eating
2.) Your primitive brain tells you the emotions are terrible so that it can get what it wants – a binge
1. You are out of practice being with emotions without binge eating
If you’re used to following the urge automatically during certain emotions, then to just have the emotion without binge eating is going to feel different. Different does not mean worse. All things considered, it feels much worse to binge.
Binge eating is a dangerous and health-sabotaging behavior, but that’s what you’re used to at this point. So, when you don’t distract yourself, there are going to be new sensations that arise. You’ll have to deal with both dismissing the urge and having whatever sensations the emotions cause. It’s not that bingeing ever helped you cope with that emotion or solved any problem, but it did create temporary pleasure that diverted your attention, and then pain and shame afterward that likely prevented you from focusing on other problems and emotions.
It’s important to accept that whatever distraction binge eating provides, it’s not worth it. You don’t want to be binge eating in response to emotions, or to anything for that matter. You want binge eating out of your life, and to do that, it’s going to take some practice of not binge eating and dealing with whatever you feel when you aren’t distracted by a dangerous habit. It often takes just letting these emotions pass a few times to start realizing that you are definitely capable of doing that, and nothing terrible happens, and in fact, you are so much better for it.
You can do whatever you need to do to learn to deal with emotions, but to give yourself a chance to learn to cope in healthy ways, you have to dismiss the urge to binge. When binging is simply not an option, then you have so many options available to you for helping you get through tough emotions.
2. Your primitive brain tells you the emotions are terrible so that it can get what it wants – a binge
The second reason emotions feel worse when you first quit binge eating is that your primitive brain is trying to perpetuate a habit. To do that, you’ll have automatic thoughts that tell you how awful it is to not binge. Your primitive/lower brain will send messages that make you believe the emotions are much worse than they really are. During urges to binge, you’ll feel like the emotions are awful and a binge will be great, but in reality, that’s not the case.
This thought is very common: “you can’t possibly deal with this emotion, so you need to binge.”
That thought has likely worked to get you to binge in the past, so it’s going keep showing up, without regard for the fact that binge eating is so much worse for you than an emotion. Consider that this thought is simply part of how your urge to binge operates and has nothing to do with what you’re truly capable of. When you dismiss the thoughts that say you should binge because you can’t handle emotions, you start to realize that the emotions are never as bad as your primitive brain says they are.
On the other hand, the binges are always much, much worse than your primitive brain says they are going to be. You’ll have thoughts saying a binge is exactly what you need, but when you follow that thought, it only leads to pain. If you can step back from the lower brain’s false promises and realize that you can learn to experience the full range of human emotions, it helps build your confidence, and you’ll realize that you never actually needed to binge to cope with emotions.
If you want extra guidance as you learn to break the connection between binge eating and emotions, here are some resources for additional support:
Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.
Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, weekly group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.
One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.