Holiday YES’s and NO’s are Separate from Binge YES’s and NO’s

As the year is winding down, the holidays are gearing up. If you are newly binge-free, or trying to stop binge eating, you may be wondering how to manage this time of year. First, I want you to encourage you that you can avoid binge eating regardless of the date on the calendar. There actually isn’t anything special you need to do or not do during the holidays, the path to recovery is the same every day: you need to dismiss urges to binge whenever they come up, and you need eat adequately (avoid restrictive dieting).

Still, being aware of some issues that might come up specifically during the holidays can be helpful. In this month’s blog post and next month’s, I’ll give you some things to think about that can help you remain binge free, or continue making progress toward that goal.

Before I get into today’s topic, I want to mention briefly what I think is the most important thing to be aware of during the holidays. That is: At some point before the end of the year, your lower brain may produce a thought like this: “well, it’s so close to the end of the year, you can just binge now and then quit on January 1st.” This is neurological junk. This thought doesn’t speak your truth. YOU want to be binge-free now, this year, this holiday season. Expect a ‘resolution’ thought like this to come up, recognize it when it does, and most importantly, dismiss it. If you want to read a little more about this topic, I wrote a short blog post about resolution thoughts in 2010:

Now, on to the topic of today’s blog post, which is: keeping your yes’s and no’s to holiday events, obligations, responsibilities, and even holiday foods separate from your yes’s and no’s to binge eating. If this sounds a little confusing, don’t worry, I will explain.

This is a time of year when there are opportunities to put many more items on your ‘to do’ list, both at work and at home; this is a time where there may be pressure to be more closely involved in your community and with your extended family, and inner circle. All of this involvement and connection can be wonderful, but as everyone knows, it can bring a fair amount of stress as well.

For those who binge, there can sometimes be a strong stress-binge connection, so that an increase in events and obligations on the calendar also leads to an increase in urges to binge. Furthermore, other factors such as social anxiety, and the presence of certain foods at holiday events may have become connected to the binge eating habit over time, so that binge urges automatically arise in these situations. How those connections developed varies from person to person, but knowing why certain stressors, events, people, foods, and feelings lead to binge urges is not all that important to your recovery. What you need to know is that it’s simply a pattern you’ve developed, but binge eating does not actually help you cope in any way with the stressors, events, foods or feelings.

You always feel worse after the binge; it doesn’t do anything to solve your holiday problems or fulfill your responsibilities. When you binge, you either have to make yourself keep your obligations anyway, dragging through the day, with the binge eating making everything more difficult. Or, alternately, the binge makes you feel so badly that you cancel your plans, usually by making up an excuse. On the surface, some people think that this latter scenario (cancelling plans because of binge eating) is the deeper reason for the binge–that the binge was a way to get relief from responsibilities or avoid something they didn’t want to do. It is very important to see this is not true, and if you look deeper, you know that there are countless, healthier ways to get relief from responsibilities or avoid events without having to harm your health. All the binge does is give you temporary relief from the binge urge, not from your responsibilities and obligations.

To stay binge-free during the holidays, try to keep your holiday problems and your binge problems as separate as possible.

That brings us back to yes’s and no’s. If you’ve been exposed to what I’ll call the “trigger theory”–the idea that you need to learn to handle triggers, or avoid them, in order to avoid binge eating–the holidays might seem like a dangerous time, full of triggers. The trigger theory creates a situation where your yes’s and no’s to holiday events, responsibilities, and even holiday food are very meaningful to whether or not you binge. For example, let’s say that you say yes to organizing a holiday party for your child’s class, and that creates a lot of stress the night before the party. During that stressful night, you have a binge urge and act on it. In the trigger theory, the take-away lesson would likely be that you need to say no to organizing parties or similar events in the future, because you need to keep your stress level low and focus on your own needs to avoid a binge.

There are several problems with this theory:

1.) You might have really wanted to organize the party for your child’s class, even if it brought extra stress, and you
don’t want to have to base your life decisions around avoiding a binge
2.) Even if you do say no, something else could create stress, and you still could have a binge urge and still binge
3.) You could have a binge urge and still binge even without much stress at all.

Here are some additional examples of how yes’s and no’s can create confusion when you use the “trigger theory”:

– You say yes to a some chocolates at a family holiday party and that leads to a binge urge, and you act on it, so you     decide that you must now say no to trigger foods at parties.  / Alternately, you say no to some chocolates at a family holiday party, then later that night you have a binge urge and eat a lot of chocolates as part of the binge, so you conclude that you should have said yes to the chocolates at the party, to avoid binge eating at home.

– You say no to a holiday event because you don’t want to go, then when you are home alone, you have a binge urge and act on it, so you decide that you need to say yes to social events in the future, in order to avoid being alone and binge eating.  / Alternately, you say yes to a social event, but feel really anxious while you are there, and when you leave you have a binge urge and act on it; so you decide that you need say no to those type of social events in the future to avoid a binge.

As you can see, this can make all of your decision making very significant to your recovery. Even if you can somehow make what you feel are all the right decisions, you could still have binge urges. So, instead of all of this confusion, I want to suggest that saying yes or no to a holiday event, responsibility, or food has nothing to do with your ability to say no to a binge. Your yes’s and no’s to things you do or don’t want to do during the holidays (or in life in general) are different from your yes’s or no’s when urges to binge arise. One decision doesn’t cause the other.

The binge urge is an urge to binge. It is not a hidden desire to avoid responsibilities or a social event, it is not a way to calm yourself under holiday stress. It is a primal and habitual urge to eat an abnormally large amount of food. You can learn to dismiss it in any situation, effectively saying no to the lower brain always, when it comes to binge eating.

Knowing that you have the capacity to dismiss binge urges whenever they arise gives you the freedom to say yes when you want to say yes during the holidays (and in your life in general), and no when you want to say no, all the while knowing that you can still say no to binge eating.

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