Compulsive and binge eating as a coping mechanism.
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States and affects an estimated 2.8 million people. If you are touched by binge eating tendencies, even if your behavior doesn’t fall on the clinical scale, you are not alone. And you know how frustrating, and self-defeating binge eating can feel. Some people spend decades trying to stop. The long-term health risks are very real: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and debilitating emotional distress. It's no wonder that so many people reach for this comfort to the point of self-harm: processed, quick-fix foods are readily available around the clock for most of us in the United States. Fast food chains, grocery store isles chock-full of cookies and breakfast cereals, donut shops on every other corner, all tell us it’s the American way to chow down without a thought on nutrient-poor food that promises comfort, yet lacks meaningful nourishment.
Binge eating is one of the most popular go-tos for coping with stress. Whether we are aware or not, we’ve all been using food for comfort to some extent since we were infants. Eating, (or more specifically, drinking milk), was our first learned behavior. This fact might have more to do with the prevalence of overeating than we realize. We swam for nine months in a perfectly protected haven of amniotic fluid only to be yanked out into a cold, strange place. An alien giant in a white coat cut the cord that connected us to our source of nourishment and comfort. That must have been pretty stressful. Yet at that moment, we knew what to do. We cried and reached for our mother’s breast that promised the sweet, creamy comfort of the food her body had prepared for us. And it worked; we felt immediately safer. Now, we reach for other things like ice cream, or beer, or cigarettes that may subconsciously remind us of this maternal comfort.
Of course, we experience stress and the need for comfort in a more complicated way in our adult minds: we didn’t get the promotion that we wanted; our rent check bounced; our boyfriend dumped us; our sister insulted our intelligence; our husband won’t do his share of the laundry. There are infinite reasons why we reach for comfort in this way. It’s human, and it’s what we know.
Since we are no longer babies whose mothers will let us know when we’ve had enough milk, sometimes we just can’t get enough. It feels so good. We reach for more, and more, and more. And then we get sick.
What is your go-to food or ritual to ease stress?
We all have our ways of dealing with life’s stressors. Eating Oreos dipped in milk might be mine, whereas going to a yoga class might be yours. Engaging in a late night, online shopping spree serves this purpose for others. My personal coping mechanism of choice changes from time to time. This week, it involved taking my dogs hiking along the mountains-to-sea trail through the jungles of budding rhododendron and fog along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This activity filled me with an inner calmness, and helped me breathe easier when I re-entered the hectic, domestic realm later: dinner needed to be made for hungry boys, homework and piano practice loomed, and a house littered with nerf bullets and dirty socks needed cleaning. After my hike with the dogs though, I tackled these chores with a smile. But my coping choices haven’t always been so healthy.
In college, a few too many white Russians at the saloon with my girlfriends felt like the right thing to do when the assignments weighed heavy. For my husband, a beer or two after a tough day at the office hits the spot. Others dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a bag of barbecue potato chips while zoning out to a late night Netflix series; anything to blur the edges of a complicated relationship, a stressful job, or an uncomfortable feeling that gnaws away at them. Better to gnaw on something than to be gnawed.
Many would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these coping mechanisms if they are kept in check. After all, life is hard. We need to feel that we have some respite from the challenges thrown our direction. Don’t we? When life’s hurdles feel overwhelming, don’t we deserve to reach for something to steady us, even if it may not be the healthiest thing for our bodies? We humans need to be comforted and soothed to summon the stamina needed for the next challenge. And we need rewards, just as a dog needs a treat after learning a new trick. Otherwise, how do we stay motivated? Don't we deserve to enjoy our lives and comfort ourselves with the things that bring us joy? Of course we do. But what if joy isn’t forthcoming even after a half dozen glazed donuts? We thought it would arrive after just one, but since we don’t feel it yet, we reach for another, hoping this one will make everything right.
How the rituals we choose affect our health.
We all need comfort, and deserve to choose what comfort best suits our needs. However, not all comfort rituals are created equal when it comes to how they affect our minds and bodies. Even the most enlightened yogi, super mom, or fitness guru has their own version of glazed donuts. It’s just that the people who appear to have it all figured out, who smoothly surf life’s challenges without seeming to get addicted to anything, may just have coping mechanisms that don’t drain them of energy. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, running, hiking, eating nutritious food, playing guitar, painting, gardening, all are activities that can serve the purpose of alleviating stress while at the same time giving you more energy. Even eating a bit of junk food, within reason, can serve this purpose, as long as it is balanced out with other healthy food eventually. So go eat churros dipped in hot chocolate with your BFF if that brings you joy.
The problem is, we sometimes don’t know when to say when. And we sometimes forget that we have a choice as to what comfort we reach for when things get tough. When we feel worn out by what comforts us, then the ritual has lost its ability to help us. We forget that a yoga class, or a swim at the Y may feel just as comforting, and indeed for a more extended period, than five bowls of Cocoa Krispies.
Break the vicious cycle of compulsive eating.
Many clinicians agree that the best way to intervene in the pattern of binge and emotional eating is to trace the origins of the impulse to the underlying psychological landscape of the individual. Self-knowledge is vital when learning to steer your behavior away from impulses to overeat.
At Skyterra Wellness Retreat’s Freedom with Food specialty week, therapists guide participants through a process they call “embodiment in emotional/binge eating recovery.” This process aims to reconnect the individual with his or her body in a new way to redirect destructive behavior toward healthy coping mechanisms. Strategies include developing mindfulness practices around what is happening in the body, learning to identify triggers that have led to abusing food, and learning to rewire the brain from negative self-talk to a more compassionate inner dialogue. Participants are encouraged to focus on stress reduction to quell destructive food habits.
There is hope for healing your relationship with food.
“Changing your behaviors around food involves a deep dive into a whole way of life,” Skyterra’s workshop literature states. One of the reasons why this process can be so challenging is that our culture is surrounded by mixed messages regarding nutrition, food, and health. To reprogram those messages takes an ability to open one’s mind, and re-evaluate what will best support healthy eating habits. Diet culture sabotages this process because it emphasizes the following:
- Quick fix eating vs. cooking from scratch
- Calorie fixation vs. seeing food as nutritionally complex and informative
- Food deprivation to lose weight vs. consistent, nourishing eating habits
- Obsession with thin bodies vs. healthy bodies at any size
- Negative perceptions about food vs. evaluating nutrient density
All of these perceptions about food influence our behaviors and contribute to our eating habits. It is ultimately up to us as individuals to choose how we relate to food. We don’t have to remain at the mercy of diet culture. More and more, evidence shows us that food restriction leads to lowered metabolisms, and hormone deficiencies which lead to weight gain. When we learn more about the sources of stress that lead to binge and emotional eating, we can more readily embrace healthy behaviors around food. Many of us could benefit from rethinking our attitudes about food. This realization alone is a comfort worth reaching for.