How Binge Eating Saved My LifeOct 03, 2021
A few years ago, I came pretty close to burnout. I had just received a major promotion at work, but since my team was under-resourced I was expected to immediately take on new responsibilities while still doing my old job full-time.
No matter how hard I worked, it barely ever seemed to make a dent in the long list of things that were expected of me. I’d leave the office at the end of the day feeling utterly depleted and overwhelmed, unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
I didn’t know this back then, but not being able to meet expectations was one of my biggest emotional triggers. The fear someone might notice or point out I wasn’t doing a good enough job would send me into a tailspin of worry and stress.
At one point, it all became too much. As I woke up one December morning, I couldn’t face going into work and doing it all over again. I e-mailed my manager with an excuse so I could stay home for the day and take a break from it all. Exhausted and emotionally drained, I zoned out in bed while binge-watching TV shows and stuffing my face with comfort food.
The next morning wasn’t any better. One day became two, then three, then five. My manager agreed to sign me off for the rest of the month for mental health reasons.
Numbing the pain
I barely came out of bed at all that first week, leaving only to stock up on ice cream and chocolate or open the door for the pizza delivery guy. When my boyfriend came over to visit, I’d use the little energy I had to shower and hide the evidence of my daily binges.
I can still remember the concerned look on his face as I sat on the stairs, sobbing: ”I don’t understand why you want to be with me.”
My self-esteem was at an all-time low. I was convinced everyone thought I was a huge failure, and I felt so ashamed of myself. When my parents called from across the world I pretended everything was fine, unable to share with them the depths of my despair.
One afternoon, as I was lying in bed, looking up at the sky through the roof window and watching planes fly overhead, I started to pray one would crash into my building and take me away. I didn’t know how else to get out of the emotional anguish I was feeling at that moment.
Even though back then I hated the fact that I couldn’t stop myself turning to food for comfort, I realise now that binge eating got me through. Day after day, I’d turn to food to numb the feelings and tune out the critical voice in my head. Just enough to make it through another day.
And it worked.
After two weeks I started to feel better, having caught up on sleep and given my nervous system a chance to calm down. It took two more weeks to build my confidence back up and feel somewhat ready to face the world again, but I got there in the end.
Unhealthy coping strategies
Having retrained as a therapist in recent years, I can now look back at that period in my life and understand how and why I got myself into such a deep emotional hole.
I simply didn’t have the self-awareness nor the skills to soothe or regulate my emotions in a healthy way.
Very few of us do, actually.
That’s because self-soothing and self-regulating are things we learn in early childhood, provided our parents or caretakers can teach us. Unfortunately, many of them didn’t know how.
I’m not saying this to try and blame our parents for our unhappiness, far from it. I actually think it’s thanks to the hard work of prior generations that we now have the luxury to start the inner healing process to move us from physical and financial safety towards self-actualisation.
Our parents did the best they could with the skills they had, but emotional intelligence wasn’t always one of them — which is why many of us were left to our own devices whenever difficult feelings arose. And we made do.
Some of us learned to suppress our feelings, compartmentalising so they wouldn’t interfere with our day-to-day life. Others learned to express and project them onto others, often with detrimental effects. And then there are people like me, who learned to disconnect from them entirely by turning to substances such as cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, or … food.
How food helps us
I always congratulate my clients for figuring out such a clever way to survive their emotional distress when no one was there to help them. Many of them come to me feeling deeply ashamed for not being able to control themselves around food, but when they start to see that binge eating was actually how, as a young child, they learned to keep themselves safe, they’re able to start feeling a bit more compassionate towards themselves.
Food helped us disconnect when we didn’t have the skills to soothe and regulate our own emotions. It helped us numb so we could temporarily escape the pain.
Seeing food, not as the villain, but as the friend that was there for us when no one else was, allows us to release self-judgment and invite compassionate self-inquiry.
Learning to cope in healthy ways
As soon as it clicked for me that the thing I’d hated most about myself turned out to be my biggest blessing, healing could start.
Instead of trying to willpower my way through the food cravings, I became curious about what they were trying to tell me. I quickly discovered the cravings were a sign that I was actually having an emotion, prompting me to find new ways to cope without turning to food.
To my surprise, I realised that most advice about coping with our emotions — such as going for a walk, taking a bath, reading a book, talking to a friend, etc — are just more ways of distracting ourselves from actually feeling our feelings. Yet that’s all we need to learn to truly heal: to feel our feelings, so they can release.
Easier said than done, though. Many of us have 30, 40, even 50 years’ worth of well-rehearsed ways to avoid feeling our feelings at all costs. Before we can equip ourselves with the skills needed to process our emotions in a healthy way, we first need to unlearn all the ways we distract ourselves from our emotions. But with practice and guidance from a mental health practitioner, it’s certainly not an impossible feat.
Here’s a simple practice you can get started with right away:
- Find yourself a quiet spot where you can relax and close your eyes.
- Turn your focus inwards and notice the parts of your body where you feel any physical sensations — a tightening in your chest area, a fluttering feeling in the tummy, or a lump in your throat.
- Validate your feelings — tell yourself “it’s OK to feel this way” or simply affirm “I’m feeling X”.
- Next, focus your attention back on those physical sensations in the body. Don’t try to change them, simply observe them.
- Each time you notice yourself starting to engage with the thoughts in your mind, shift your attention back to the physical sensations in the body. We want to feel our feelings, not think them!
- Keep doing this until you notice the emotional charge reduce. Once it’s all gone, you may notice yourself naturally wanting to yawn or release a couple of big sighs.
- Woohoo, you’ve felt your feelings!
Give it a try and see how you feel — or if you’ve discovered any other practices that work for you, I’d love to hear about them!