This time I will be better. This time I will be stronger.
Yes! We have got this! Look at me now! Nothing tastes as good as restricting feels.
Shit. That brownie smelled good. I am SO hungry I can’t think straight.
Damnit, I can’t sleep. What if we don’t get this project done by the deadline tomorrow?? We are screwed…I am going to be blamed for it all…I am definitely going to get fired…Yup, tomorrow is going to be my last day at work…I might as well start packing my bags now…I mean what does it matter!!
God, I am so weak. Why do I end up here every time?
Do these thoughts at all sound familiar? Can you relate to this endless cycle? If so, you aren’t alone. Welcome to the relentless binge-restrict cycle. When caught in the middle, it can feel like there is no way out. If you have acknowledged that restriction is even feeding into your binges, then you are ahead of the game. Many people see the binge as a problem, but the restricting as a way to make up for the binge i.e. not the issue. The reality is restricting and binging are equally feeding into each other.
You could really start the cycle anywhere but let’s just start with restriction. I want to acknowledge that restriction often does provide a brief relief from certain anxieties. Maybe it feels like you are “good” because you are “following the rules.” Maybe it is relieving some of the shame or guilt from the previous binge. Maybe it is helping distract you from stress or other emotions. The key is, it may actually calm you for a brief time. Remember, eating disorders exist for a reason.
But that honeymoon phase just won’t last. And it is not a failure within you – you are not the problem. You are not a robot. Your body needs nutrients and it will do what it needs to do to get it. It will kick into survival mode. Before that, there’s often a fixation on food because you are so hungry. It is starting to impact your sleep. You are becoming irritable. Perhaps you have physical symptoms too like lightheadedness. At this point, you are highly vulnerable for a binge.
Trigger and Binge
All it takes is a spark to ignite the binge. You’ve had hours or days of restricting and you are emotionally and physically depleted. We call that spark a trigger and it can take many forms. Someone at work saying something in passing, a big fight with a friend, or just celebrating making it through another week. The trigger does not have to be a big event because there has been a build-up of emotion by this time. A binge is often releasing a lot of tension.
Physically, your body is desperate for food and in this hour often wants fast energy. It wants food that it can break down quickly. And your mind wants a pleasurable reward. That is why some people find themselves binging on foods from childhood (nostalgia actives reward center of the brain) as well as sweets/carbs (glucose which can be broken down quickly). You aren’t weak. Your body is thinking on its toes. It’s surviving. But you aren’t thinking about that right now. The binge is a blur for most. Like it is something that “has to happen,” an itch that won’t be soothed unless it is scratched.
But then you come to and you are hit with a wave of shame and guilt, well and physical pain for some. A binge is characterized by a large amount of food in a short amount of time. It is not unusual for many people to have physical pain and digestive issues after a binge. But the shame and guilt are the real enemies. Those are the internal voices that say you are worthless for being back here again. They say you are not strong and that the binge is your fault. Often times your mind snowballs or catastrophizes and soon you are thinking about how this applies to all these other scenarios in your life.
When you get out of the black hole, some say it is hard to eat due to the physical pain and end up restricting. Other people just actively decide to restrict after a binge to compensate for what they ate. Either way, the cycle resets. That plus the new layer of shame and guilt is added. The new set of reasons why you are not good enough or why you should be restricting or …you get the point. It just keeps going.
5 Tips to Break the Cycle
Compassion and understanding. If shame and guilt are undercurrents to this cycle, then imagine the power of having compassion and understanding with yourself. “I had a stressful work week. I hadn’t eaten lunch. We got in a fight as soon as I got home. I guess it does make sense why I went for my comfort foods?” The reality is people don’t have eating disorders for no reason. You are restricting and binging for some purpose. This rhythm is not actually fun to be trapped in. When you can find the reason why and understand what it is doing for you, it often helps provide that understanding and makes room for self-kindness.
Post Binge Reflection
The feelings that come up after a binge can be so uncomfortable that you may be really eager to get far away from them. The urge may be to sweep that episode under the rug and forget about it. What I want to encourage you to do is actually add a step into the cycle: Reflection. Sometimes it is hard to start with expecting yourself to just snap your fingers and change your behavior. Sometimes it is easier to start by forcing yourself to reflect after a behavior. And trust me, that is still hard. Why? Because you have to sit through the emotion rather than run from it. BUT if you do, you have the opportunity to learn from what just happened. And maybe there is one small change you do feel up to making.
From our previous example, “I had a stressful work week. I hadn’t eaten lunch. We got in a fight as soon as I got home. I guess it does make sense why I went for my comfort foods? Maybe I need to look for ways to release stress throughout the week.” So rather than expecting yourself to change your entire behavior right out of the gate, I would encourage you to journal about your cycle. Try and break down the steps as I have above. What were your vulnerabilities and triggers? Where could you introduce a coping skill?
Eat After A Binge
This may be a hard one for some, but you have to get back on the horse and eat. We can have a level of understanding that you are in physical distress, but realistically, that can’t last forever. Your body will need food again, otherwise you will be restricting and the saga continues! This is when working with a dietitian can be handy. Sometimes it is nice to talk through things like how exactly you ease back into eating without leaving room for your eating disorder. In general though, you need to be working towards getting back to a regular eating pattern i.e. not restricting. Doing the opposite of what would be next in the cycle.
No Foods Off Limits
As you are eating, give yourself permission to eat all foods. What fuels binges are the rules that certain foods are bad or off-limits. The more you say you can’t have something, the more you think about it and crave it. If you just let yourself have some, you are more likely to just move on. I know you may think you might go overboard (binge) if you let yourself have the “bad” foods. And you might at first, but if you trust your body, you will find an equilibrium.
We come back to seeing binges as the problem and not the restricting. You have to acknowledge that they are connected, so one is not better than the other. If you want binges to stop, you have to stop restricting food.
Finally, if you are allowing yourself to eat all types of food throughout your days, you have to also break away from the idea that some foods are good or bad. That assigns worth to them. You are judging the food. Therefore, when you eat the food, you judge yourself and the reality is, food is just food. We want to work towards neutralizing it. If you don’t, that inner critic is going to come to life and start beating you up for your choices.
These 5 tips are not the end all be all to ending the cycle. They are just five tangible items that you can actually work on. This cycle did build up over time and it will take time to deconstruct. Give yourself the space and time to work through it. Having a team that includes a therapist and dietitian can be really helpful to talk through some of this. But I do want you to know that it is possible.