Bingeing and grief—how do we begin to process feelings instead of overeating?
Most binge eating patterns develop to distract from feelings and thoughts.
Binge eating is rarely about the food. It’s about feelings we have about our circumstances and thoughts that overwhelm and stress us, making us feel hopeless and powerless.
Overconsuming slows down our thinking and functioning. Our body’s activity switches over to digestion and the focus becomes the food it now has to process. This means more blood and energy diverted to our stomachs, which is why we tend to get so relaxed and sleepy after eating a lot.
This was certainly true for me, as my overeating began as a response to grief from my mother’s death. The effects of the overeating took over my body, mind and heart, stuffing away emotions such as fear, anger and confusion.
When I think back, I think of the freezer in our house. There was an outpouring of generosity from our community for my father and me. It came in the form of gifts of food: all kinds of meals, desserts, and for some reason a lot of chocolate cake, which all ended up in that big white freezer in the basement.
No one talked to me about my mother’s death and what her absence would mean for me, they just brought more and more chocolate cake.
I medicated my grief and confusion with overeating—stuffing the feelings I didn’t know how to process.
My father was also overwhelmed with grief. He didn’t talk about it, worked a lot, and didn’t pay attention to the contents of the freezer. This left me to me to select, thaw and cook dinner from the various options and to keep a constant plate of cookies, sweet bread and other confections on the kitchen counter. But the chocolate cake was what called to me, and I kept that for myself. I liked eating it frozen, enjoying the cool texture and the quick carb, sugar and fat hits. A perfect distraction from the grief that was so heavy.
In four months I gained 20 pounds.
I don’t remember when the frozen chocolate cake ran out. It didn’t matter. I baked my own, along with lots of other goodies. I binged in isolation, and at times with friends in that sanctioned social overeating way that is sadly part of our culture. It was my coping mechanism.
By the time I got to college, I weighed 190 pounds, and my weight continued to climb until a health crisis demanded I take responsibility for my eating. I was forced to face my hidden wounds. I began my healing journey by starting counseling in my 20s, and for the first time I named and understood the anger underlying my grief.
I began to recognize the rage I had about losing my mother and what felt like my family, and how I was dulling the pain with overeating to create feelings of safety and control,
My healing deepened through coaching, taking very small steps to change my habits and Naturopath’s treatment plan for my physical health issues. I have dropped a significant amount of weight and learned how to acknowledge and manage emotions.
If you struggle with emotional overeating or bingeing, here are some suggestions to stop the habit and replace it with what will help in moments of discomfort:
1) Hit the pause button.
When you feel the urge to overeat, pause. Stop to ask yourself, “What do I want, what do I need right now?” Interrupting automatic, often unconscious behaviors is the goal.
We often don’t know the answer to these questions, and it will be uncomfortable at first. Hang in there. Repeat the questions until you hear an answer. Maybe we really want to go for a walk, talk to a loved one or to take a nap. More likely we want a difficult feeling to go away. Usually, the last thing we truly want is food. If we are truly hungry, that is different. But In a society of constant encouragement to consume combined with continuous food resources, some of us rarely experience true hunger.
2) Identify and acknowledge feelings.
Give yourself space to let the feelings come fully. This is difficult and even threatening for some of us initially. There are four main categories of feelings: sad, mad, glad and scared. Examine what you’re sensing in your body, and name the feelings. Let yourself have all of them; don’t judge them or yourself for having them. Witness them, acknowledge them, let them have air and light. Be willing to look at them like a leaf in a stream—watch them, notice everything about them, and most importantly, let them pass. Do not grab hold of leaf after leaf after leaf, holding onto painful emotions that keep us unhappy, stuck and immobilized. If they build, that is when we seek relief through bingeing and other unhelpful choices, which only brings a false sense of relief, and nearly always more problems and self-loathing, creating a vicious and difficult cycle to stop.
Learning how to compassionately process thoughts and learning to change them is a life-altering realization. It was surprising how quickly they left when I didn’t hold onto them and let them go. It was even more startling to realize I was actually beginning to like and love myself as the bingeing subsided and the weight came off, and I could take care of myself in positive ways.
How wonderful life was when this became my new normal. Developing compassion for my history, my body and my feelings opened up a whole new way of being, and it feels a million times better than the previous existence.
3) Create a list of things to do instead.
What things bring you joy and comfort, or happiness and relief?
Write a list of 25 things you can do (more if you can). Keep in mind every area of your life. Come up with a list of alternatives for each. What do you have available or time for at work that may be different than home? What can you do at a party or event? Think of traveling, commuting, time with relatives and the places and situations you realize you tend to binge.
Some examples are:
Reach out to a supportive friend.
Go for a 10-minute walk, preferably outside. Nature is a great source of positive energy.
Drink a large glass of water.
Do something creative with your hands, like knitting.
Take a five to 10-minute nap, or sit somewhere quiet with your eyes closed.
Engage in five to 10 minutes of something physically intense.
Stop for tea.
Recite a soothing phrase. For example, “Even though things are hard right now, I will be okay. I am safe.”
Read your favorite poetry or an engrossing novel.
Put on your headphones, close your eyes and relax, or jam out to your favorite music.
Smell something wonderful that you associate with a happy time in your life. (Keeping essential oils on hand, and putting a drop on a stone as needed is helpful for me.)
I can now look at my younger self with great compassion. I can even thank chocolate cake when I see it for helping me when I didn’t know how to help myself.
I recently had some frozen chocolate cake for the first time in years, and I could feel my inner younger self, who is still present, briefly enjoy it, pause, and tell me she didn’t need it anymore.
I have experienced a profound flood of compassion from realizing that my grief and body have healed as a result of stopping binge eating and taking responsibility for my emotions. If I can do this, you can, too.
Author: Lauren Oujiri
Apprentice Editor: Annette Huebner / Editor: Toby Israel