What works to end binge eating

What Makes Recovery “Work”?

I know a life free of binge eating is completely possible for you, but if you are like many binge eaters who I’ve spoken to over the years, you may have a hard time believing that right now.  You may have searched for years for a cure, for something to “work,” for it all to just click so that you will no longer binge.  You may feel exhausted and frustrated by the search.

You may be someone who has already read my books, and you could be thinking that the method I used “worked” for me rather quickly, so it should be the same for you.  You may believe that if the concepts from my books do not work right away, then you need to look for a new approach that will work.  It is certainly possible that another approach may be a better fit, but if you are someone who has jumped around from one approach to another, I want you to take a minute to think about what you believe makes a recovery method “work.”

If you are holding the common belief that a recovery method only works if it gets rid of your binge urges right away, or at least very quickly, this could create some problems for you in recovery.  If ‘getting rid of the urges right away’  was the measure of a successful recovery method, then the Brain over Binge approach actually didn’t work for me either.

Seeing my binge urges as meaningless, powerless, and harmless neurological junk from my lower brain didn’t make those urges go away right away, or even all that quickly. The new mindset I had changed how I perceived my urges, and it rather dramatically made me feel my own ability not to act on them.  But, the urges were still there for a while.

I had to avoid acting on every binge urge until they did completely go away – about 9 months from the time I adopted my new approach.  Not once during those 9 months did I think “this isn’t working.” The reason for this was that I defined success not by whether or not I had urges, but by my ability not to act on them.

In the beginning of recovery, the binge urges came frequently…and I wasn’t perfect.  There were two times when I did act on the urge. The first time, I heard those familiar, lower brain reasons why I should binge, I felt the familiar craving, and I mistakenly thought it was the real “me” who wanted to binge, and I acted on it.  The second time I binged, I had much more awareness of what I was doing, but ultimately, I did still act on the urge.

When I acted on those two urges, I didn’t proceed to throw out the principles that I’d learned, because they didn’t “work.” I realized that in those specific instances, I had not applied what I’d learned, and I had simply followed the urges.  I did not think that I’d failed or that I needed a new approach.  I recognized that I had the power to avoid acting on the very next urge and to keep my recovery going.

During those 9 months of having urges but not acting on them, I never wished the urges away or took their presence to mean something was wrong.  I believe this was a big component of what allowed the approach to be effective.

My own recovery and my experience helping others has led me to believe this:

What makes recovery “work” is not what works to take your urges away.  It’s what works to help you not act on them.

No matter what approach you use, the crux of recovery comes when you have a thought, feeling, or impulse encouraging you to binge, but you don’t.

When you are able to do that over and over, your brain changes, the urges gradually do go away, and your binge eating habit is erased.

Go to What Makes Recovery Work, Part II

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

If you want extra help in making recovery work for you, the Brain over Binge Course is composed of over 125 audios to guide you and encourage you, including one audio you can listen to when you are having an urge to binge—to help you avoid acting on it. You can get access to the complete course for only $18.99 per month.  

binge eating journal

Before Therapy for Binge Eating: A Telling Journal Entry

I often kept a journal as a kid and teen, and continued journaling as I began to struggle with binge eating. Writing was an outlet for me and seemed to help me process things I was going through. When I started to feel so out of control with food, my journal often felt like the only place I could turn, because I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my binge eating and didn’t think anyone would understand.

A Binge Eating Journal in Therapy Was Complicated (and Didn’t Stop Binges)

Once I began therapy for binge eating, my therapists encouraged me to journal as a way to try to uncover deeper emotional reasons for my binges. I learned to use my journal as a way to try to find patterns in my binge behavior, and figure out which events, feelings, situations, interactions, and stressors preceded and supposedly triggered my out-of-control eating episodes.  Because therapy taught me that binge eating was a coping mechanism for problems and emotions, I also wrote in my journal as a way to help myself cope, thinking that would take away my desire to binge.

In Brain over Binge, I explained the many reasons why mainstream therapy concepts didn’t work for me and why thinking my binge eating was due to deeper underlying problems or a need to cope was not helpful. The way I used my journal in therapy may have helped me have some insight into my life, and problems, and emotions, but it did not help stop my binge eating. It made my binge eating seem meaningful and important, and also made it like a mystery that I needed to solve. (You can learn more about why digging into emotional and psychological issues is not always useful in recovery my blog post: What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part III (You Don’t Need to Work so Hard)

Pre-Therapy Journal Entries More Accurately Described My Binges

I did write about binge eating a bit before I started therapy. I think my pre-therapy journal entries are raw and telling, and more accurately interpret what my binge eating was about: It wasn’t about coping, it was about the food.

I wrote the journal entry below a couple months after I turned 18—about a week or two before my first appointment with a therapist regarding my binge eating/bulimia. At the time, I was still underweight from anorexia, but I had been binge eating for about 7 months, and the binges had been steadily increasing in frequency and quantity of food. It’s evident from this journal entry that I had not been introduced to the idea of binge eating being a coping mechanism. Instead I had a couple intuitive and clear ideas of my own about my binge eating. I think these ideas can be summed up as:

1. I feel like I can’t control myself around food   

2. I think I might like to binge, even thought I hate it’s effects

At this point in my eating disorder, my strong cravings and urges to binge were the result of my survival instincts. The binges were an adaptive response to my extended and extreme dieting; and those urges were generated by a primitive part of my brain, which I call the lower brain. But all I knew at the time was that I couldn’t seem to control myself around food, and I hated myself for it. I didn’t realize that the part of me that seemed to like binge eating wasn’t really me at all, but a primal part of my brain that was driving me toward massive amounts of food in order to defend against starvation—and that part of my brain was steadily becoming more and more addicted to the binges. Each time I binged, I cemented the pattern a bit more until it became powerful habit, and my body and brain seemed to become dependent on large amounts of the foods that were initially so attractive to my survival instincts—foods higher in sugar/carbohydrates and fat.

If you want to know more about survival instincts and habit and how they lead to urges to binge (and how to overcome those urges) you can get my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics

This is the journal entry from October 1999:
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I don’t know who I’m writing to or why I am writing, but I thought it might help me to get this out. Basically, I’m out of control. I can’t stop eating or thinking about food. I’ve been bingeing almost every other day. Since last night, I have been really really crazy. Before I went to bed, I had 3 bowls of cereal, 3 Nutri-Grain bars, 1 pudding cup, 1 bagel, a half a can of beans, a piece of cheese, a few handfuls of Fruity Pebbles, and 7 pieces of bread with butter. Then, I woke up at 12:30am and ate another pudding cup and a cup of milk, and another Nutri-Grain bar. Then, I woke up at 2:00am and ate another Nutri-Grain bar. Then, I woke up at 5:30am and had 2 more Nutri-Grain bars (totaling 7), a cup of milk, a cup of juice, then a piece of bread, then about 20 crackers, and a protein bar. I finally had to stop because it was time to go. [*I was leaving with my cross-country team to drive to South Carolina for a race, which was to take place the following day.The next part of this entry was written on the road with my team. I was sitting in the back of the team van, where no one could see my writing]

We just stopped at Cracker Barrel for lunch on our way to Clemson. I was still so full from last night so I decided to just order a turkey sandwich and a side of green beans. That would have been ok, but then I ate 2 pieces of cornbread & a biscuit as well. I was doing my best to eat slow and be normal, but I really just wanted to dig into everything. I’m like this almost all of the time now, and I don’t know why. Last night it was like I almost wanted to binge. After the first part of the binge that ended about 10:30pm, I actually felt good. But, then when I kept getting up at night and after lunch today, I just feel like a big failure. I spent so much time and energy and used so much self control to get down to this weight. And, now I’m ruining it. I weighed myself yesterday before dinner and this morning and  I gained 5 pounds in one night! That’s absolutely ridiculous. 

Do you think my body is just trying to tell me something? Or am I just crazy? Sometimes I feel like if I had a choice of what I wanted to do, I would choose to just sit in my room and stuff myself. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I enjoy it. After I binge, I just lay in bed and go to sleep. If I could just learn how to throw up, I could binge and not gain any weight. [*I left this here to show the desperation that goes on in a bulimic’s mind, but I want you to know that self-induced vomiting is never a solution and only makes the problem worse. It’s an extremely dangerous behavior and I’m thankful that I was never able to self-induce vomiting, because I might not even be here to write about my experience and recovery. For help with this, you can read a guest post from Ali Kerr: Tips to Help You Stop Purging.]

I think I just need to stop being such a baby. It’s sad but sometimes I would rather eat than do anything. Every time I do it, I swear to myself that I’m never going to do it again, but I always do. Right now, I’m feeling so nauseous and sick, but if I were alone in my room, I know I would eat more. I need a babysitter 24/7. My parents and sister know some of what is going on, but, they don’t know how to help me. I told the sports psychologist about the problem this week and I went home after the appointment and binged. It was like the whole day, I just knew it was going to happen. I went to Wal-mart with [two of my friends] and I bought the Nutri-grain bars knowing I would probably end up eating a ton of them, but not thinking I would eat the whole box in one night.

I feel like no one eats as much as me in the entire world, but I’m skinnier than the majority of people I see. How is that? I know it’s going to catch up with me very soon if I keep this up. I hate myself so much right now.I just want to be normal. I just want to eat and forget about it. I don’t want to think about food all day long. I feel so alone.

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I think this entry is telling because of my honesty—admitting that I liked the binges. As I said earlier, this was a lower-brain-driven, primal form of pleasure that I didn’t understand, but still, this type of honesty was extremely rare in my journal entries after therapy—when I became convinced I binged for complicated emotional reasons and it was a coping mechanism for life’s problems. In later journal entries, I attributed my binges to things like feelings, stressful events, daily inconveniences, problems from my past, or relationship issues; and I rarely said what I said here, which was basically: “my cravings feel out of control, but you know what?…it feels good (temporarily) when I give in.” It only made sense that it felt good—of course there was great pleasure in the relief from self-imposed starvation.

Simplifying Recovery Based on What My Binge Eating Was About

The last paragraph in this journal entry is also telling in that I say “I want to be normal“. Even thought there was an unsettling pleasure in it, I didn’t want binge eating in my life, and I was taking steps to try to get help. I was receptive to help—to therapy— which I began shortly after writing this. Once I began therapy, I didn’t need to learn that all of this was a symptom of underlying emotional issues spend years digging through and trying to resolve those issues. I needed to learn that I was starving and my body and brain were reacting to try to protect me. I needed to learn that trying to maintain such a low weight was the cause of all this, and if I stubbornly continued to put my body in a calorie deficit, there would be no chance of stopping the binges.

It’s not that my dieting was completely ignored in therapy. I did learn that food restriction was part of the problem, but even when I normalized my non-binge eating—which wasn’t too difficult because I was motivated to do it—the binge urges persisted. As I discuss in my books, this was due to the persistent nature of the survival instincts and also due to habit. Simply normalizing my diet wasn’t enough; therefore, I also needed to learn something else—how to say no to each and every urge to binge.

In other words, I think my therapy, and the therapy for most bulimics or people with binge eating disorder, could be made simple—consisting of only 2 components:

1. Learn to eat adequately

2. Learn to resist urges to binge  [*I now say dismiss urges to binge, and you can learn about this in the free PDF]

I do not believe that the exact same methods that helped me resist urges to binge will cure everyone; but I do not believe in making recovery unnecessarily complicated, time-consuming, and difficult. I believe the key is finding what works for you to help you say no to the binges and therefore erases the habit. You can find more guidance in this blog post: What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part II (The Work You Need to Do.

If you need even more help, you can learn more about my Course.

Pain

I was thinking some today about emotional pain, and it’s connection with binge eating and other addictions. The common belief is that addicted people use their substance of choice to numb themselves to pain. In the past, this belief was reserved primarily for users of alcohol and drugs; but now binge eating, overeating, shopping, gambling, pornography, and even texting and facebooking are often considered addictions that are used to numb out pain.

In therapy, I indeed learned that I binged to avoid pain; and for a long time, I believed that was true. It’s certainly true that a side effect of binge eating and other addictions is temporary distraction from pain and numbing of emotions. However, that’s usually not the primary motivation, and most addicted people know – at least at some level – that the temporary avoidance of pain isn’t worth it and only makes things worse in the long run.

Moreover, the addicted person doesn’t always consider the numbing of pain to be a positive side effect.When I go back through my old journals, I find evidence that I didn’t want the temporary distraction that binge eating brought. I found a journal entry from 2001 where I jotted down: “I want to feel everything. Not full. Not fat.”I wanted all the emotions in my life; I didn’t want to “push them down with food,” as my therapists suggested I was doing.At any point during my binge eating, if someone would have offered me the choice between 1.) being free of binge eating and feeling every bit of the pain in my life OR 2.) continuing binge eating and avoiding some feelings temporarily; I would have chosen option 1 without any hesitation. Yet, I reported time and time again to myself in my journals, or to my therapists that my episodes of binge eating were because of this or that painful event or feeling. It never felt quite right to me, and I eventually realized that it wasn’t. I kept binge eating because I had developed a habit and I felt powerless against my urges; and believing that eating was a way to cope with pain only compounded the problem.

I began thinking about this issue tonight while my husband and I were watching the Monday Night Football pregame show. There was a story about a former quarterback whose son committed suicide; and after that horrific tragedy, the quarterback buried himself in alcohol. I can’t even imagine being in this man’s situation, and the incredible pain he must have endured, and still endures day after day.

Did the alcohol make this man’s pain go away? Likely not. But, did the temporary distraction seem worth it to him at the time? Probably. So, in effect, he was choosing to drink to temporarily avoid his pain. I would never judge this man, or anyone under such emotional duress for their choices; and I do not deny that there can be a similar dynamic at work in some cases of binge eating. Trying to get someone undergoing such extreme emotional trauma to avoid acting on their urges to binge would likely be a losing battle. They would not want to stop because the temporary distraction is what they feel they need.

This is one of the reasons why I say in my book that I unquestionably agree with therapy on one thing – that the first step in recovery is wanting to recover. However, this statement is a little redundant because most people who don’t want to recover aren’t actively seeking therapy or recovery.It’s usually only after the person realizes that the temporary numbness isn’t worth it that he/she seeks help for the addiction. Might the emotional pain then need to be dealt with in therapy? Absolutely. Nevertheless, once a substance addiction forms (for whatever reason), the urges will continue to arise; and I believe, need to be dealt with as a separate issue. Dealing with emotional pain doesn’t necessarily make the urges for the substance go away.

Even though addictions and eating disorders might sometimes develop as ways of dealing with severe pain, we can NOT treat all eating disorders and addictions that way. I believe assuming that everyone who binges does so to cope with pain – no matter how minor or severe – does a disservice to many.