This post will be for those people who are just starting out trying to let the urges to binge pass rather than acting on them, and especially for those who might be struggling with this. I’ve heard from several readers who relate to my story and believe a similar path to recovery would work for them, yet still have difficulty putting it into practice. Since my book is a memoir of my own recovery, and not a traditional self-help book; it does not include a lot of specific advice and tips for the reader. Instead, I explained exactly what worked for me, in hopes that what I did to recover could be a path for others to follow (although I know that no one will follow my path exactly, because everyone’s situation is a little different and different ideas work for people in different ways).
For those unfamiliar with how I recovered, or those who would like this information in one place, I’ll summarize here the 5 steps that allowed me to utilize neuroplasticity and put an end to my bulimia for good (you can also see a more thorough book overview/summary here: http://www.brainoverbinge.com/Pages/sitemap.aspx)
1. I viewed my urges to binge as neurological junk. (This means I quit believing the urges signaled a real need – physical or emotional – and stopped assigning the urges any value or significance whatsoever. I viewed them as automatic brain messages generated in my lower brain that deserved no attention.
2. I separated my highest human brain from my urges to binge.(This means I realized the urges weren’t really me, but instead were generated in brain regions inferior to my true self. My true self resided in my prefrontal cortex – my highest human brain – and it gave me the ability to say “no” to binge eating. I had to know my urges were powerless to make me binge, and my true self had ultimate control over my voluntary actions.)
3. I stopped reacting to my urges. (This means I stopped letting my urges to binge affect me emotionally. I simply let them come and go without getting wrapped up in them. This made the urges tolerable and actually rather easy to resist.)
4. I stopped acting on my urges. (This was the cure for my bulimia, made possible by the three steps above. I didn’t have to substitute any other behavior or emotionally satisfying activity for binge eating. I only had to refrain from binge eating.)
5. I got excited. (This was a bonus. By rejoicing in my success, I sped along the brain changes that erased my bulimia.)
Even if this method makes sense to you, it’s possible that when your urges come up, you may still be overwhelmed by them and end up acting on them. So, here I’m going to give you some suggestions on how you may be able to prevent that from happening. But before I do, I’m going to ask you all to help me with this task. What I request is that anyone who wants to, write (in the comments section of this post) about what helped you the most in resisting urges to binge, or maybe give your best piece of advice to someone just starting out learning to separate/detach from urges and avoid acting on them. I think it would benefit everyone to be able to read what did and didn’t work for others, and get tips from people other than me who have been successful in quitting binge eating. The more ideas and advice we have available, the better. If you need help getting started thinking about what to write, here are some questions that may spark an idea:
Thank you in advance to anyone who decides to share their thoughts here!
Now, I’m going to list the tips/thoughts of my own. Most of these are suggestions I’ve given to readers in the past, but this is the first time I’m compiling them into one place; so forgive me if this is not extremely organized.
A few readers have asked me if there was anything specific I did or told myself to disengage the animal/lower brain. Besides briefly reminding myself of what I’d learned and the fact that those thoughts weren’t truly me the first few times I tried this technique, there wasn’t anything specific I did or told myself to disengage the lower brain. I just heard it acting up and sending those automatic faulty messages without letting those messages affect me. I really think trying to have any sort of mental dialogue regarding the urges to binge while experiencing those urges can be counterproductive for some people, because it may actually unwittingly engage the lower brain. This is especially true if you try to be argumentative with your lower brain, trying to refute the automatic messages it sends. I’m going to try an analogy to explain this, which I hope makes some sense and explains this a little better:
Let’s say you are in an argument with someone, and after listening to them, getting upset, and arguing back for a while, you eventually realize that arguing is futile and they aren’t worth your time; so you just quit listening/letting their words affect you. You still may hear what they are saying but it makes no difference to you and you no longer get upset. That’s detachment. But, what if instead – prior to trying to detach from the argument – you said out loud, “This is just a fool talking and I’m not going to listen anymore.” It’s probably going to escalate the other person’s argument, right? I think it can be the same thing with the lower brain. When you say, “this is just my animal brain talking; it is wrong; and I’m not going to give it any more of my attention,” you’ll probably hear lots of counter-arguments, like “no, it is truly you that wants to binge,” or “okay, maybe it is your animal brain, but just give in one last time; it will be worth it and you can start over tomorrow.”
So to me, I think what makes the most sense is no dialogue with the urges at all. If you don’t let your lower brain bother you; if you don’t try to argue with it; if you just let it do what it’s been conditioned to do without reacting at all, it’s going to fall silent. In the beginning, it will try to present its case frequently, but it will taper off.
The idea of wanting to binge vs. wanting to quit ties into my last blog post: Do You Truly Want to Quit?. I believe that most of the time, the feeling of wanting to binge is only present just prior to a binge when the act seems so appealing. After the binge there is regret and you remember that you in fact, truly don’t want to binge at all. This is why I think it’s so important to be able to dismiss ANY thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. This includes those messages that tell you binge eating is worth it, and that it is really you that wants to binge. I don’t mean you have to disagree with those thoughts or try to argue them away, because that is usually futile; I only mean to remain unaffected by them until they pass. And after those thoughts pass (in the same way as after a binge, but without all the guilt and disgust) you’ll again remember that you truly don’t want to binge and be so glad you didn’t act on the urge.
1.) You are not eating enough/still dieting restrictively. If you are not eating sufficiently, you’ll likely keep your body and brain in “survival” mode, and I truly believe urges that arise because of survival instincts are much harder to detach from than urges that arise due to habit. I think limiting calories and trying to resist urges to binge would be extremely difficult, and is simply not compatible. You certainly don’t need to binge to solve your calorie deficit, but you do need to eat more in your normal diet.
2.) You have not yet truly detached/separated from your urges. I say in the book that quitting wasn’t completely effortless at first. However, it certainly was NOT a painful struggle either. It was a bit tricky in the beginning because my lower brain could generate very convincing reasons for binge eating, and I had to get used to staying detached from those thoughts. I found that if I could separate myself from the thoughts and feelings about binge eating before they turned into powerful cravings, it was much easier/effortless; but if the urges became powerful, it required more conviction to step back and put the urges in perspective.
During the times when I found myself starting to relate to my cravings and losing separation between me and my lower brain, I tried to simply focus on not acting on the urges and moving on with my day, even if it wasn’t exactly comfortable for a short time. And always, soon enough, I’d be back to feeling like the real me again, who had absolutely no interest in binge eating.
It seemed to me that the excitement/amazement I felt at finally being able to control my behavior seemed to override any temporary discomfort I may have experienced in the beginning. Also, I really tried to experience any feelings of discomfort as part of my binge-created brain-wiring problem; those feelings did not truly indicate my discomfort, but my lower brain being deconditioned from a habit it had become so dependent on.
I think it’s helpful to treat thoughts telling you that “it’s so hard to resist the urges” as neurological junk. You don’t have to disagree with those thoughts, but instead just let them come and go without getting caught up in them and without reacting/acting. You might find that soon, you stop believing that it’s hard for you to quit, but simply that your lower brain is putting up a fight and doesn’t want to give up the habit. It’s not putting up a fight out of any sort of malice; you’ve just conditioned it to react as if binges are vital and necessary for your survival. It’s only acting automatically; it has no power over you; and you know better than it does about what is best for you.
I think once someone experiences true detachment from urges, it ceases to be a struggle. Even if you understand the concept of separating from your urges and listening without reacting or acting, it’s not until you feel/experience it for yourself that it becomes real and powerful. I am thankful that one inspiring woman, Mary in Los Angeles, is allowing me to share something she emailed to me recently which relates to this point. At first, she was struggling somewhat with detachment; but then one day, she “got it” and has been very successful since then. Here is what she wrote:
“Since my last binge, I have employed true detachment when the urge to binge arises. And Kathryn, it is astonishing. The flicker of the thought or feeling comes up, I see it, briefly acknowledge it, don’t engage in it and just focus on my motor skills of whatever I’m doing and on getting on with my day. The flicker burns out and I’m left with this kind of glee and giddiness – freedom, that’s the word. I don’t pretend to feel safe, not even close. I fear the monster is lurking beneath my bed, but as each of these encounters with the urge to binge comes up and goes away, I feel I’m inching little by little closer to the real me, the life I want and deserve.”
With that profound quote (thanks Mary!), I’ll open this up for you to share your own experiences, struggles, tips, and triumphs.
*Update 1/3/2014: Please see “Tips for Beginners…Continued (Inspirational Testimony)” for more!