“As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, no matter how ill or how despairing you may be feeling in a given moment.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
Binge eating is hard. For me, winter time has always been hardest.
The winter of 2011 was particularly bad. It was then that I sat, hands clasped around my knees, thinking about how best to kill myself.
Hopeless only scratches the surface of what I was feeling—that same feeling I’d had on-and-off for fifteen years. I was twenty-three. I’d spent half my life in darkness.
I went over the mathematics: Depression + Eating Disorder = Agonizing Existence.
I was finally ready to admit I needed help. So as I sat there, I vowed to put an end to my suffering. I told myself “I’m going to give this one final push. I’ll put all of my energy into stopping this continual depression, and these cycles of binge eating and starving myself. If it still doesn’t work, I’ll just kill myself.”
It really was that simple.
By the end of 2011, I didn’t want to kill myself anymore. A few years later, I’d stopped binge eating completely. These days, I’ve never been happier. I don’t get depressed anymore. I am healthy, mentally and physically, and I try to live every day in gratitude, happiness, and well-being.
That’s how I know you can do this too, and why today I’m sharing with you six powerful steps that I found essential to my journey.
1. Realize there’s nothing wrong with you.
I know it feels like you’re a disgusting, terrible person for binge eating. I know you don’t understand what’s going on, or what happened to your “willpower.” I know you’re starting to feel insane.
But listen up: there is nothing wrong with you.
Binge eating isn’t about food; it’s about emotions. People deal with their emotions in all kinds of ways. If you’re at the end of your tether, you might do drugs, you might drink, you might get really angry with the people you love, you might have anxiety attacks, and/or you might binge eat.
This isn’t a judgment call. Binge eating is just what you're doing to try to deal with difficult emotions in the best way you know how right now. That doesn’t mean you’re broken, that doesn’t mean you’re going to “be like this forever,” and it doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to cope in different and more productive ways.
It’s completely natural and normal to want to feel better. So although it's not ideal to binge, know that it is human, and it is okay.
2. Reattach your head to your body.
Up until I was twenty-three, I didn’t even know I had a body.
I will never forget this: one day, I was walking up a hill to my office (I was doing a Ph.D. at the time) and suddenly I just felt terrible. Then I was frustrated that I had been feeling okay, and suddenly everything had become unbearable.
I’d just learnt about mindfulness, so I did what is known as a body scan (where you “scan” each part of your body with your mind, and notice whatever is present, without judgment).
You know what I realized? I was just really hot from walking up the hill.
I took my coat off and felt instantly better.
This moment was huge for me. I’d spent so long in my head that I didn’t even realize I had a body–that it too had needs—and that I needed to listen.
As well as allowing you to get back in touch with physical sensations in your body (like temperature, and gentle, non-scary sensations of hunger), mindfulness increases your control over your emotions (more precisely, it increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotional responses.
That’s good news if you’re binge eating. Maybe right now there’s a disconnect between your mind and your body, but by using mindfulness to gain more control over your emotional responses, you’ll start to learn to decide whether to listen to those calls to eat emotionally, or not.
Action step: Start doing the body scan once a day. If you can’t manage thirty minutes, start with two minutes every day. Then build it up to five minutes, then ten. Start slowly and build it up over time. This is about practice, not perfection.
3. Shift your self-worth.
I’ve always been athletic, but while at University, I decided to “get in the best shape of my life.” I trained excessively: high intensity intervals, multiple times a day. I became obsessed with what I ate. I weighed myself multiple times a day, checked how my belly looked in the mirror every opportunity I could. I called myself fat at every single opportunity, and always felt incredibly self-conscious everywhere I’d go.
In reality, I was a skeleton, but all I saw was fat, fat, fat.
When my obsessive exercising and restrictive eating turned into binge eating, I didn’t know what to do. I was so ashamed of myself for my actions and what I was doing to my body after “all that progress I’d made.”
All of my self-worth was in how I looked, and how thin I was. It felt like binge eating was against everything I stood for.
I decided I needed to be stronger, both mentally and physically, so I joined a gym and began to train for strength. Binge eating made me feel completely out of control, but by showing up to train no matter how I felt, I started to realize that I actually did have control—that I could still act in the way I wanted to, even if I didn't feel like it.
I realized that I always had a choice.
It’s important to say at this point that strength training has been a helpful part of my recovery, but you don’t need to go to the gym to stop binge eating. In fact, exercise can be unhelpful for many people, especially if you aren't listening to your body when it needs to rest and recover.
Indeed, while my commitment to strength training boosted my self-worth in the short term (and helped me stop binge eating), I eventually recognized I was too focused on my performance. I never quite felt like I was achieving, doing, or being enough.
I now know that we are all so much more than how we look, how much we weigh, and how well we perform, so I recommend a diversified approach to building your self-worth. Instead of tying it to your body, focus on a variety of things, like being a good friend and relative, acting with integrity and honesty, and taking care of yourself enough so you can give back to others.
So many people who binge eat are overachievers and perfectionists, but when you’re in this deep, it’s a sign that you need to diversify your identity away from perfection, dieting, exercising to extremes, and working too much.
Instead, I recommend trying to figure out what you truly value in your life, then focusing on the process of becoming the person you ideally want to be.
Action step: Take a few moments to ask yourself: What do you value in your life? I don’t know about you, but when I’m lying on my deathbed, I don’t want the only thing people can say about me to be:
“Well, at least she had a six pack.”
No. I want to be so much more than just a body to the people in my life, and to myself. I want to be kind and strong, encouraging and inspirational. I want to love.
Do you value being a good friend, parent, sibling, artist? Do you value your well-being? Could you start practicing gratitude for the things you have in your life, including your body? Could you practice just sitting, breathing, and being human?
4. Find the diamonds in the turd.
Right now you’re focused on all the times you binge, all the times you have these strong urges to eat, and all the other things that you are doing “wrong.” But, I guarantee you are doing so many things right.
I call these the diamonds in the turd.
Maybe there are only actually two to three hours each evening where there’s a strong urge to binge. Right now you’re focused on that time, but think about it: for twenty-one hours of the day, you don’t want to binge. That’s great! It’s also powerful information, because recognizing when you’re most prone to a binge is going to help you stop.
Maybe you notice that you feel more prone to binge after you've had a bad night's sleep, or when you're stressed, anxious, or worried. Is it possible to get more sleep? Can you plan to get more time in for your wellbeing in general?
Maybe you notice the urge to binge is stronger after you’ve looked in the mirror and insulted how you look, or when you scroll through Instagram and see athletes, models, and random happy people that you want to look like. Can you limit your time on social media, or only follow people that actually help you? Can you be kinder to yourself in the mirror?
By starting to notice your own behavior—by becoming a detective about it, rather than judgmental critic—you’ll see there are plenty of things you’re doing right. This means you can begin to focus more time on the actions that are helpful (like taking better care of yourself through sleep, and taking time out just for you), and limit the unhelpful things (like social media, diet blogs, and your negative, hurtful self-talk).
If you're not sure where to even start, try making a tally chart of the number of times you catch yourself thinking about food today. This will make you more aware of your thoughts, which means you're more likely to be able to catch yourself and say:
- “Okay, I'm thinking about food. Does this mean I need something else right now?”
- Or maybe just “Okay, I hear this thought, but it isn't helpful right now. Let's focus on something else.”
It will also make you aware of how often your food thoughts aren't occurring:
“Okay, so today I caught myself fantasizing about food 37 times, but 50,000 thoughts go through my mind every day! So I'm not thinking about food ALL of the time. So when am I not thinking about food? Can I do more of that?”
Action step: Find your diamonds in the turd:
- What's different about the times where I'm not binge eating / don't want to binge eat?
- Where am I when I do, and don't, want to binge?
- What activities am I doing?
- Is there some way I can do more of the things that help, and less of the things that don’t?
5. Stop restricting.
There are many scientific studies showing a strong correlation between diets and binge eating. (Here’s a summary of just one of those studies.)
If you’re finding it difficult to stop binge eating, one of the best things you can do right now is to stop restricting yourself. That means giving yourself permission to eat any food, at any time. It means not starving yourself the day after a binge, or doing excessive amounts of exercise because you “slipped up.”
When I suggest this to people, there’s normally a lot of hesitation. I totally understand. You’ve been dieting and restricting your intake for so long that it’s scary to try something different. But binge eating isn’t serving you any more, and if you don’t eat enough, or eat what you’re really craving, then you will simply never be satisfied.
Instead, satisfaction can be increased (both physically and psychologically) by bringing awareness to your tongue. How does your tongue feel in your mouth? How does the food feel, and taste, on your tongue?
A lot of people talk about mindful eating, and this will definitely help, but only as long as it doesn’t feel restrictive. If “eating only when you’re hungry” feels too restrictive right now, then it’s totally fine to eat when you’re not hungry. If “eating mindfully” feels too restrictive, it’s okay to not do that for a while.
When you’re ready, you can begin to introduce one mindful bite a day, then one mindful bite per meal.
Action step: Try to stop restricting foods. If you binge, try to do it as mindfully as possible (giving yourself full permission to do so). When you’re ready, you can introduce mindful eating into some of your meals.
6. If you do binge, follow these three steps.
Trust me, you’re going to “slip up” on this road, but that’s okay. You’re in the process of learning the skills you need to cope in a more productive and healthier way. That takes time.
These three steps will help you if you binge eat:
Step 1: Forgive yourself immediately. (That was a tough moment, and you didn’t behave in the ideal way. That’s okay, you’re human, and you’re learning. Think of what you’d say to a friend going through the same thing, then say that to yourself.)
Step 2: Try to become curious about what happened. Try to pinpoint what caused it. Was it a particularly stressful day? Were thoughts whizzing around in your head? What could you do to increase your self-care the next time that happens?
Step 3: Wait until you’re next hungry, then try to eat a “normal” meal (just some basic veggies, protein, carbs, and fats). Don’t try to overthink it, and don’t try to restrict.
The great thing about this is you will always get hungry again. And when you are, it’s another opportunity to practice listening to your body’s natural hunger signals.
Finally, no matter what happens, just remember: as long as you’re breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.
Illustration by Kellie Warren. Find her on Instagram @kellistrator.