Binge eating is hard. And for me, winter time has always been hardest.
2011 was a particularly bad winter. Shivering in the cold of my childhood bedroom, I sat – hands clasped around 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 ten years. I was 23. Half my life had been spent in darkness.
I went over the mathematics:
I was finally ready to admit I needed help. So as I sat there, in that disgusting bedroom, 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.
That night was a pivotal moment in my life.
I’m nearly 30 years old now, and the last few years have been the best ever.
I don’t binge eat anymore, and I don’t seem to get depressed anymore either. Instead, I’ve learnt the skills and tactics needed to live happier, to live more peacefully, and to live with a focus that allows me to achieve more than I ever dreamed I could.
Today I want to share with you three key things that I believe you need to stop binge eating for good.
1. Reattach your head to your body
Up until I was 23, I didn’t even know I had a body.
I will never forget this: one day, I was walking up a hill to work. Everything was fine. In fact, I’d woken up feeling okay (which wasn’t the norm back then).
But as I walked up this hill, I suddenly began to feel awful. A depressive fog was descending over me. I began to feel frustrated that I had just been feeling fine, but suddenly everything was becoming unbearable.
I’d been learning about meditation and mindfulness, so I did a quick body scan (by which I mean: using my mind to feel each part of my body in turn).
You know what I discovered?
I was just really hot from walking up the hill. I took my coat off and felt instantly better.
That moment was huge for me. I realized I’d spent my whole life so trapped in the thoughts in my head, that I didn’t even realize I had a body. And that body had needs. Needs that I was supposed to listen to.
If you’re binge eating, it’s very likely there’s a disconnect between your mind and your body. This can be due to all sorts of reasons, such as dieting (where you intentionally disconnected from your hunger signals), experiencing something traumatic in your life, or simply lack of practice.
I find the best way to reconnect with myself is to focus on my breathing, because — after all — you are always breathing. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of that fact.
As well as breathing, I recommend tuning in to the sensations of your body throughout the day. This might be as simple as feeling your feet on the ground while you’re waiting in line or the breeze flowing through your hands as you walk. Or it might be part of a longer meditation.
These exercises are part of something you’ve probably already heard of: mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention, non-judgmentally, to whatever sensations, thoughts, or feelings are here in this present moment.
Research has shown that mindfulness helps you to gain more control over your emotions. So, at the moment, you might hear that binge voice shouting EAT EAT EAT whenever you experience emotional discomfort. But, with enough mindfulness practice, you’ll eventually be able to decide whether to listen to those calls to eat, or not.
Moreover, being in the present moment day-to-day means you become more aware of the times in life when you aren’t thinking about food, or when you actually are feeling real, true joy.
So any thoughts of “I’m always thinking about food”, or “this will never end” can be met with a more compassionate, “It’s okay. This is just a temporary feeling.”
2. Shift your self-worth
When, like me, you grow up believing you’re not good enough, you spend every day focused on trying to be better. On trying to prove you’re not weak and worthless.
This is how I started exercising excessively and starving myself so I’d become thin.
I had a laser-like focus on my weight.
Soon, my obsessive exercising and restrictive eating turned into binge eating, I didn’t know what to do. All of my self-worth was in being lean. I was so ashamed of myself for binge eating. I thought I was disgusting.
So I decided I needed to be stronger. So I joined a gym with the intention of lifting weight and put all my efforts into showing up, but not overdoing it. I decided to train consistently, but in moderation.
That meant I’d go to lift weight on training days even if I had binged or felt unbearably unhappy.
And I began to see that I did have a choice over my thoughts.
Because even when I had a million things swirling through my head and all I wanted to do was crawl under a duvet and hide from the world — by showing up to train, despite what I was feeling, I began to see that I could choose to act in the way I actually wanted to, no matter what my current thoughts were telling me.
At the gym, I also met a group of massive, powerlifting guys. They accepted me.
They didn’t seem to care what I looked like but just encouraged me to get stronger.
I hadn’t accepted myself yet. But by training with them, I started focusing on the weight on the bar going up, rather than my body weight going down.
Focusing on performance, rather than how lean I was, allowed me to step off the scale. It allowed me to stop putting so much of my worth on my weight. I built up my mental resilience, because even if I couldn’t lift the weight I wanted to today, I knew I had the opportunity to try again tomorrow.
This helped me see that even if I couldn’t avoid a binge today, I knew I had the opportunity to try again tomorrow.
I was no longer just a number on the scales. In fact, I threw my scales away (and I advise you to do the same).
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, exercising can be unhelpful for many people in recovery and even dangerous.
The important thing is to find something else to put your self-worth into. Realize that you are so much more than how you look, or how much you weigh, or even how well you perform.
So many people who binge eat are overachievers and perfectionists. Their identity is about performance. 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.
Focus on being a good friend, parent, sibling, artist… Focus on your well-being. Start practicing gratitude for the things you have in your life, including your body. Practice just sitting, breathing, and being human.
3. Realize thoughts are not your identity
Imagine you’re laying down on the grass on a sunny day, looking up at the clouds. Some of the clouds are white and fluffy, some of the clouds are grey. And all of them form different shapes and look like different things.
The clouds are like your thoughts. They might be joyful and fluffy, or they might be grey and gloomy. Either way, when you’re immersed in your thoughts, you’re in that fog of the cloud itself.
But when you take a step back and put your feet on the ground, you can look at the sky as a whole. You can notice that the clouds keep changing. They take on different shapes, and none of them are permanent.
Just like sitting and watching the clouds pass over you, it‘s possible to just sit and observe thoughts, without interacting and identifying with them.
To see how, try this exercise:
Set a timer for two minutes, and for the next two minutes do this:
- Sit down and try to focus on the sensation of breathing.
- Feel you bum on the chair, and feel the breath going through your nose/mouth and belly. Feel your belly rise on each in-breath, and fall on each out-breath.
- Sooner or later a thought will pop into your head. It might be “this is boring”, or it might be “this is weird”. Whatever the thought is, notice it, then go back to focusing on your breathing. Do this as many times as necessary for each thought until the two minutes are up.
Right there, in that small exercise, you’ve seen how you can have a thought, watch it, then focus on something else. You can see it without interacting with it. So it is possible to look at the sky as a whole, without always being in the clouds.
Thoughts of food and thoughts of self-hatred are no different to any other thoughts. They are merely suggestions.
Now, I know they don’t feel like suggestions right now. Right now, they are so emotionally charged, and the pull is so great that you feel like you have no choice but to be in the cloud (or in the cake).
That’s why you have to start small. Start with things like the exercise above. Then work on lengthening the amount of time you do that exercise for. Then progress slowly from there.
A simple plan could look like this:
- First week: once a day, do a body scan for 10 mins.
- Second week: three times a day, focus on your breathing for 2 minutes.
- Third week: same as second week, but in addition, when you feel a strong emotion, try to tune into how your body feels in that moment.
Now, will you be binge-free after three weeks? Probably not. But by getting into the habit of practicing to tune into how your body feels, eventually you’ll be able to notice the thought to binge – and decide to keep your feet on the ground anyway.
When you notice what thoughts you’re telling yourself, you can take control. You can identify with the ones that help you, and rewrite the ones that don’t.
“I’m so fat” —> you can notice this thought, and change it into “I’m having a judgmental thought about my body”
“I’m a terrible person for binge eating” —> could be changed into “I’m judging myself. I’m going to forgive myself and have self-compassion. I’m doing my best.”
“I’ll never get through this” —> can be changed into “Is this thought helpful to getting me where I want to be? I’m going to acknowledge it, hear it, but decide to move on.”
When you observe your thoughts, when you look at them with your feet on the ground, you can decide to interact with them, or to rewrite them into something that’s useful.
When you do this enough, you get control over your life, and you’ll begin to see that there is beauty. Not just in the white and fluffy clouds, but in the dark ones too.
There is beauty in the sky as a whole.
To sum it up:
- Realize you have a body and start trying to listen to it. I recommend using the body scan once a day, and other mindful practices, such as deep breathing.
- Start focusing on something other than your weight, appearance, or performance. Focus on your well-being, instead.
- Work on noticing your thoughts, in small ways at first. Then continue building on that until you can rewrite them to help you live the life you want to live.
Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher