Improve Self-Control and Stop Binge Eating Under Stress

Improve Self-Control and Stop Binge Eating Under Stress

I received a request for a blog post about how to improve self-control and dismiss binge urges when you are under stress. Stress can deplete the self-control functions in your higher brain, especially if you have stressful responsibilities that seem to require heroic self-control—like caring for an aging parent, nursing a sick spouse, being with young children all day, a highly demanding career, or dealing with difficult co-workers. At the end of the day, or whenever you tend to binge, you may not feel like you have the energy left to say no when the binge urges arise.

It may seem like you automatically and mindlessly follow the urges, so that you begin to wonder if you actually have any self-control in the moments when you need to avoid a binge. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the higher brain that gives you the capacity to overcome habitual and instinctual drives form the more primitive part of your brain (the lower brain)—can become weaker in times of stress.  This doesn’t mean you don’t have any self-control. You can work to improve self-control so that it’s available to you when you have urges, and you can learn to stop binge eating under stress.

In this post, I’m going to give you two suggestions to help, which I also included in the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. The goal of both of these suggestions is to help give your higher brain the ability to do it’s job, so that you can use self-control when you need it to overcome urges to binge—even when you are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or exhausted.

1. Use Basic Self-Care (not Self-Indulgence) to Improve Self-Control

Having demands on your life and your time, and having a strong desire or unavoidable need to help others, does not have to affect your ability to recover. However, if you are currently struggling to say no to urges, it could be that your higher brain/prefrontal cortex is drained of energy. Research shows that self-control is like a muscle and can get tired when we are under stress or under-nourished; so that in these situations, the brain is primed to let survival mechanisms and habits—good or bad—run the show. [1]  This does not mean you have to get nine hours of sleep per night, take a vacation, or buy expensive vitamin supplements in order to avoid binges. It only means this:

If you are currently unable to dismiss the urges, make sure you are not sabotaging your higher brain by neglecting your most basic needs—a decent amount of sleep, a little relaxation, and adequate food intake.

Being tired, overwhelmed, and exhausted won’t be a problem for you (as it pertains to recovery) in the future when your new habit is to not binge. Even though you may not be at your best if you don’t sleep well or have worked a long, stressful week, binge eating won’t cross your mind. Since recovery, I’ve had long stretches of time where I got vastly insufficient sleep—mostly due to my four babies who were terrible sleepers. For many months at a time, I got about 2-4 non-continuous hours of sleep per night, and not once did binge eating cross my mind. There are times in life when self-sacrifice is necessary and something you gladly accept, and that won’t change just because you have a history of binge eating.

What I’m suggesting here is a focus on basic self-care as a short-term tool (of course, taking care of yourself is always a good idea), in order to help your higher brain during the time when dismissing urges is a new skill and therefore takes up more energy reserves in the higher brain. Once you get better at dismissing the urges, it won’t be as demanding on the higher brain, so even if you don’t sleep, or your kids or boss drive you absolutely crazy that day—you’ll still have the energy reserves to easily avoid binges under stress. Then your urges will gradually fade, and won’t come up even if you do choose to devote all of your time and energy to others, and even if circumstances temporarily prevent you from meeting your basic needs.

If you are going through a time in your life right now that you feel is depleting your self-control, my advice for you would be to analyze the situation and try to find areas of opportunity for sleep, rest, and nutritional improvements. Even if you can carve out an extra half-hour for sleep each night or a ten-minute nap during the day, and try to make sure you don’t skip meals—that will benefit your prefrontal cortex. Remind yourself what you are still capable of dismissing urges, no matter the situation or stress level, but forgive yourself if you don’t avoid binges every time. Be patient and congratulate yourself on the times you are successful and build from there. Try to find small moments of self-awareness in the midst of the difficulty of your life, and that will help you feel more centered and connected to your higher brain when urges arise. (This podcast episode may also help you: Episode 42: The Power of Mindfulness in Binge Eating Recovery).  

2.   Short Meditation Sessions to Boost Your Ability to Stop Binge Eating Under Stress

Another way to help you feel more grounded and able to use your higher brain is adding very short meditation sessions to your day. Even five minutes of meditation every day will give you increased self-control and self-awareness—important benefits for someone trying to quit a bad habit. There are many ways to meditate, so you can find something that works for you, and I’ve included a short description of a useful meditation technique below, which you can use as a starting point. I am not suggesting meditation as a form of relaxation or feeling better, although it can certainly serve that purpose as well. I am suggesting that you meditate as a form of strength training for the higher brain—so that it will be more resistant to stress-induced energy depletion.

Your goal during meditation will be notice when your mind wonders and bring it back to a focal point—the breath is an easy focal point, but you can also focus on something physical like the feeling of your feet or hands, or focus on a certain word or phrase that you repeat over and over. This act of drawing the mind back from distraction and habitual thought activates the higher brain. Something I wish I would have known when I was a binge eater is that you aren’t meditating “wrong” if your mind keeps wondering. When unwanted thoughts pop up, that’s your opportunity to put your higher brain to use, redirecting your focus, and therefore changing your brain.

You may have to refocus 100 times during a short meditation when you first start, but if you keep practicing, you will get better—both at meditating, and at awareness of automatic thoughts in general, which will carry over through the day. Meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, and builds stronger connections in the area of the brain responsible for self-control, which will benefit you in times when your life is demanding. Research indicates that self-control and ability to focus increases after just three hours (not all at one time) of meditation, and one can see visible brain changes after eleven hours. [2]  Just 5 minutes once or twice per day will add up quickly, and you may start experiencing positive benefits and increased awareness right away. I realize if you are busy or exhausted, taking 5 minutes to meditate is going to seem like a waste of time, but if you can get over that mental barrier and just do it, you will start to see the benefits.

If you need a little guidance getting started, try the following simple meditation, adapted from The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., an expert in the science of self-control. [3]

  1. Sit still and stay still. You can choose to sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground or you can sit on the floor with your legs crossed. During the meditation, try to resist any impulses to move (for example, see if you can ignore itches and urges to change your position). Sitting still is important because it teaches you not to follow your impulses automatically.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In your mind, say “inhale” when you breathe in, and “exhale” when you breathe out. Whenever you notice that your thoughts are wandering, bring your mind back to focusing on your breathing. This activates the prefrontal cortex and quiets the stress and craving centers of your brain.
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and how thoughts wander. After a few minutes, stop mentally reciting the words “inhale” and “exhale,” and focus only on the sensation of breathing. Your thoughts might wander a bit more without these words. When you notice that you are thinking about something else, just bring your attention back to breathing. If you find it very hard to focus, you can say “inhale” and “exhale” for few rounds.  This part helps to train both self-awareness and self-control.

I hope that using these two simple suggestions will help you start to feel more in control and able to avoid binges.  If you want even more help with binge eating recovery, you can check out my Coaching Audios or Course

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[1] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 57)

[2] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 25)

[3] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 25)

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