This article has also been featured in Elephant Journal.
Binge eating can feel like a vicious cycle.
I know this not just because of the clients I see regularly struggling with disordered eating, but I also battled myself with binge eating and extreme dieting for over a decade. Desperate for relief, I tried an accumulation of therapists, support groups, meditation practices, yoga classes, and countless self-help books. Nothing helped. I was trapped in a seemingly hopeless cycle of preoccupation with my body and weight. Restrictive eating would inevitably lead to binge eating which was followed by a shame spiral, then more binge eating, and subsequently more obsessive dieting. It was prison of my own creation.
In finding Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), I realized that my extreme reactions, intense emotions, all-or-nothing thinking, and self-loathing were the real problem—binging and restricting were simply symptoms. DBT taught me the skills I needed to regulate my emotions and counter my extreme thinking. These skills are approachable and can offer some relief as soon as they’re implemented.
Underneath the desire to overeat is often a need for nurturing. With the DBT skill of self-soothing, we can learn to nurture ourselves in a way that is an act of self-love rather than self-destruction. This is a method of tolerating distressing emotions without causing harmful consequences, such as shame, guilt, addiction, or poor health. Instead, this coping skill helps build a sense of confidence, mastery, and optimism.
Taking advantage of things that excite our five senses is a great way to self-soothe. Watch a sunset or sunrise, give yourself a mini-massage with your favorite scented lotion, wrap yourself in a cozy blanket, listen to your favorite music, or enjoy a relaxing herbal tea. These are just suggestions—self-soothing can involve any sensory experience that helps you connect in a healthy way to your mind and body.
For those of us struggling with binge eating, there is quite often a feeling of self-loathing underneath our harmful behavior. The very act of binge eating can reinforce feelings of shame and self-hatred as we feel like we fail at balanced eating. When I was stuck in this cycle—trying and “failing” at every diet and every plan that promised the perfect body—I had no faith in myself. I struggled to see a way that I would ever break free.
This DBT skill asks us to do one thing each day that makes us feel accomplished. The key here is to look for something that is challenging enough so that it creates a feeling of pride and satisfaction after you do it, but not so difficult that it might reinforce feelings of failure. Many things that have helped both me and my clients are small, like making the bed each morning, cooking more meals at home, and committing to a simple exercise routine.
Mindfulness of emotion
When we can step back and notice our emotions, we start to realize that they come and go like waves. Emotions only last 60-90 seconds if we allow ourselves to experience them as the temporary feelings that they are.
The mindfulness DBT skill tells us this: Don’t push the emotion away, don’t amplify it, don’t hold onto it, and don’t be afraid of it. When we release our grip on extreme emotions, we start to give ourselves grace for “slipping up” now and then. We become more tolerant of feelings of impatience and body shame that, without mindfulness, can lead to binging.
This DBT skill is quite similar to emotional mindfulness, but instead of surfing the waves of emotion, it helps us surf the urge to overeat or engage in other self-destructive behavior. Before I learned this skill, I felt like I was completely at the mercy of my cravings. Similarly, my clients often tell me things like “I don’t have a choice, ” “There is no space in between my urges and my behavior,” and “It all happens so quickly and I just do it.”
When I learned this simple technique, I was astonished to realize that I did, in fact, have a choice. Mindfulness gives us the power of choice; it puts a wedge between our impulses and our actions. In that space is everything, including the power to choose how we want to respond, rather than the noisy direction of old patterns that no longer serve us.
When I was trapped in the cycle of binging and restricting my eating, I was always in such a hurry. Why? Because I was in so much pain. I always felt like my life was on pause and that I could never fully engage with life or the people around me because I felt chronically out of control. I was often hiding from the world, working so hard to figure myself out.
Radical acceptance is a life-changing skill. It helped me bear a reality that was not the one I wanted, and now I get to share this practice with my clients. Radical acceptance supports us in acknowledging and recognizing what is true, letting go of fighting reality, and—with whole mind, heart, and body—opening to fully experience reality as it is in this very moment. Radical acceptance transforms unbearable suffering into bearable pain.
Like anything else, these skills take practice. But even just one of these tools can interrupt a cycle of self-harm and give you enough space to make a decision that serves you. Experiment with one of these practices today and then reflect on how it made you feel.