Slowing Down Eating Binges | Counseling | Therapy

Slowing Down Eating Binges

Shannon Oliver-O'Neil , LCSW — Therapist, director of intern program, director of rhode island office

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For many people, sitting with an uncomfortable feeling such as anxiety, shame, sadness or anger can be intolerable. Behaviors like drinking, exercising, watching netflix and binge eating are all things our brains have developed to escape or mask these difficult feelings. While binging may provide temporary relief, it is not a sustainable way to cope, and often can amplify those initial negative feelings once the binge is over. A necessary first step to managing binges is to better understand what causes them. This exercise can be used as a foundational step in your journey towards managing and preventing binges.

Often, our coping behaviors happen so quickly and without thought, that we rarely notice what triggered them, much less have the chance to make a different choice in the moment. What we need then, is a way to slow down those moments between triggering feelings and the decision to binge eat. We need a way to create more time and space in order to gather actual information about what is going on. This timed journaling exercise is one way to slow down eating binges.

Step 1: Notice your binges

Build your ability to notice when a binge is happening. This is a skill in and of itself, so don’t beat yourself up if you are not able to notice a binge until you are in the midst of it. Here are some moments you might recognize that a binge is about to happen, or is in the midst of happening.

  • You notice thoughts like “I really want x food” or “I want to stop doing x so I can get to the kitchen”
  • You notice yourself en route to the kitchen or store to procure your binge food.
  • You notice yourself as you prepare to make or buy your binge food.
  • You notice yourself eating.

Any of these moments are appropriate times to use the Timed Journaling exercise. As you build your ability to notice and anticipate binges, you may even have the opportunity to try this exercise at various points throughout your binges. Take advantage of this opportunity to notice: when is it easier to pause to journal? And does the content of your journaling change based on when you do the exercise?

Step 2: Pause

When you notice that you are on the edge or in the middle of a binge, take a second to pause. Avoid judging thoughts, or punishing yourself for the binge. The only goal now is to literally take a moment. Grab a paper and pen, or even just the notes app on your phone. Once you have your journaling implements at hand, set a timer for 5 minutes.

Step 3: Journal

Challenge yourself to write continuously, without stopping, for the entirety of the 5 minute timer. Even if you repeat yourself, or just write “I hate this” over and over again, that counts! Keep writing! By writing continuously, you accomplish two things. One, you give your brain something to do while taking a pause from your binge. Two, you increase your chances of actually identifying and writing down some of what you’re feeling in that moment.

If you are the sort of person who likes to have journaling prompts, here are some options:

  • What happened today that led me here? Where am I in this moment? What time is it? Who have I interacted with today and how did they make me feel? How have I spent my time today?
  • What were your expectations for yourself today? What do you expect yourself to be/feel/accomplish? Who, if anyone, do those expectations benefit? Who, if anyone, do they harm? Why are those your expectations?
  • If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be? Why? Who would be with you? Why them? How would that place and those people make you feel?

Step 4: Make a choice

When the timer goes off, you can make a choice. You can resume your binge, or find something else to do. If you work with a therapist, you might talk together about other things you can do in those moments. Whatever you choose to do, there’s no wrong answer. The purpose of this entire exercise is simply to slow down the binge process, so you get to make a choice, and to gather additional information about what feelings may be propelling you into a binge.

Once you have been able to do this exercise 3-5 times, take a look at the results of your journaling. What patterns do you notice? Are you often hit with a bingeing urge right when you walk in the door after work? Are you hit with urges after you get off the phone with your mom? What feelings tend to precede a binge, or be present during one? Do binges tend to come when you’re feeling angry at people you’ve seen that day? When you’re feeling anxious? When you’re feeling ashamed? What needs do those feelings signify? Bingeing is an attempt to escape or mask those feelings. Working to understand and address them will help alleviate the urge to binge. If you look at your journal entries and don’t know where to start, consider making an appointment with a therapist to support you on your journey to health.

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