Are Emotions Driving Your Binges?

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In the first two articles of this series, I discussed the role of dieting and the effect of broken dietary rules on maintaining the binge cycle. In this part I discuss the contribution of moods to the binge cycle.

Some people have great intolerance for negative moods and as a result develop ways of trying to ward off the negative feelings. Once a binge eating pattern develops, many with mood intolerance seek relief from intense emotions via the same behaviors: bingeing, purging, or excessive exercise.

However, coping in this way only creates a secondary feedback loop that serves to maintain the binge cycle. Bingeing and purging cause guilt and shame – additional negative feelings that demand relief.

If this is the case for you, then your path to conquering binge eating will likely lead you to a point where you must overcome mood intolerance, learning to more effectively manage your negative emotions.

Negative Moods

Negative moods are a universal human experience. Fear, anger, and sadness all have adaptive functions in ensuring our survival. It is not possible or even desirable to eliminate negative feelings.

However, negative moods can actually reinforce destructive behaviors. Negative moods generally dissipate over time of their own accord. When a person does something during a negative mood state as an attempt to alleviate it – regardless of what that behavior is – a reduction in that state follows.

…while people tend to give comfort foods credit for helping them feel better, eating such foods had no measurable impact on mood.-Lauren Muhlheim

As an example, one recent study found that while people tend to give comfort foods credit for helping them feel better, eating such foods had no measurable impact on mood. The individual learns to associate doing the behavior (in this case, eating comfort foods), with an improved mood whether or not it had any actual effect.

This is why maladaptive responses to negative moods can be so profoundly destructive. Whatever behavior (including bingeing, purging, or exercise) the individual does prior to the reduction of the negative mood becomes reinforced. The cycle of emotional reinforcement makes binge cycles very hard to interrupt.

Coping Skills

All people must develop skills to cope with negative emotions. Unfortunately overreliance on a single coping strategy, particularly a destructive one such as bingeing, can be problematic. While it may provide some temporary relief or distraction, in the long term it makes problems worse by causing guilt, shame, and negative self-esteem.

For those who are stuck in a binge cycle, it is important to broaden the repertoire of coping skills. It is helpful to build up a tolerance to negative emotions as well as developing other methods of self-soothing.

First, individuals must learn to notice urges for self-destructive behaviors. Then they must institute a delay while consciously diverting their behavior towards an alternative more adaptive coping skill. I tell clients to think of this like building a muscle. The more experience you gain standing up to urges (and not giving in to the urge to binge or purge), the stronger (and more automatic) the new coping skills become.

Examples of activities that help some people cope include: doing a relaxation exercise, diaphragmatic breathing, listening to music, calling a friend, taking a walk, doing a craft, coloring, and painting.-Lauren Muhlheim

It may be helpful for clients to learn mindfulness and relaxation skills and also to make a list of alternative activities that are incompatible with bingeing and purging. Examples of activities that help some people cope include: doing a relaxation exercise, diaphragmatic breathing, listening to music, calling a friend, taking a walk, doing a craft, coloring, and painting.

Distress is a normal part of life and it is impossible to entirely avoid it. Attempts to avoid distress often backfire and so instead individuals should treat distress as data on which they can act, while using healthy coping strategies to manage the discomfort.




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