For this week’s article I am responding to a question from a reader, Anna, who, after reading last week’s article, Back to Basics, wanted some more specific information on how to overcome nighttime binging.
“I get an overwhelming sense that I need to eat at bedtime. It is almost like an obsession. I have not figured out what thought is triggering this yet. (At other times of the day it seems easier to figure out the thoughts that precede such events.) If I assume it is really hunger and decide to have something small, I am right into a binge and cannot stop with a reasonable amount. Any ideas?”
Well, for starters, always remember than any time you are eating and you’re not hungry or restricting yourself from eating when you are hungry, you are engaging in using food to cope. That means that you have had an experience (or a number of experiences) that triggered you to feel anxious or insecure, which triggered a sense of helplessness and kicked some all-or-nothing thinking into gear, which only served to make you feel more anxious, which led you to needing to overeat rather than simply respond to the natural signals from you body of hunger and fullness. That’s the cycle of all eating disorders, only for some, rather than overeat, restriction is the response to the anxiety and insecurity that the all-or-nothing thinking triggers.
From the question above, it’s not clear if you are checking in throughout the day in a structured way or if it’s just that, should you notice the urge to overeat through the day, it’s easier to identify the trigger. I’ll offer an answer for both.
If you are checking in throughout the day:
If you are checking in throughout the day and identifying and releasing stressors at regular intervals, and then get to the end of the day and feel compelled to binge, regardless of whether you were hungry to begin, that would mean that something has happened since you last checked in, an old issue you thought you had resolved has resurfaced in your mind, or something in your environment at home triggers you to feel unsafe or lonely. If this is the case, sit down with your food and a pen and paper and write out a step-by-step List of Stressors to expose your stressor and the stories that are making you feel so anxious. Then identify alternative possibilities to help shift you out of your old, flight or fight, all-or-nothing brain and into your adult, rational, big-picture thinking brain. You will feel much better and eat less during that sitting, once you have seen more clearly with your rational mind what is really triggering you and whether there really is even a problem.
Boredom and restlessness are reasons that I hear very often from clients who binge at night. The truth is, boredom is always a culprit of all-or-nothing thinking. Boredom and restlessness are really just another way of saying that we are anxious and lonely. If we’re anxious and lonely it’s because we have needs that aren’t being met that are triggering us to feel unsettled which triggers some all-or-nothing thinking. We need to identify what we’re telling ourselves about the situation at hand:
Ask yourself these questions:
“What am I telling myself it means that I am alone tonight (feeling lonely tonight)?”
“What am I telling myself I should be doing right now?”
“What am I telling myself it means that I am doing what I’m doing?”
Is there any all-or-nothing thinking in any of those stories? Remember if you’re not sure, just add “and that means” to the end of your first answer to each question and see what shakes down.
Always dig a little deeper when you think it’s just boredom.
Also, a small percentage of the issue for all of us as we heal is that you are in the habit of binging at a certain time of day. This piece is extremely easily attended to when the need for food to cope with stressors is removed. So if you’re fairly far along in your healing and you think there really isn’t a stressor, it’s just habit, I want to invite yourself to just notice the impulse to binge and say:
“I know that food is a coping strategy and I now have other ways of dealing with my stressors that feel better to me. I am choosing not to keep this ritual of eating at night alive anymore. It doesn’t serve me and I know I can handle life without it.”
If you no longer need to use food to cope and have been persisting with evening binges out of habit/default, that statement alone will suffice.
I encourage you to have a list of 10+ things that you really enjoy doing posted on your fridge. Let the list contain a variety of activities, with and without others, such that at any time of day or night, there would be something on that list that you would feel drawn to and be able to follow through on doing. For example, you might have a list that looks like this:
Watch my fave show;
Do some Yoga/stretching;
Call a friend;
Go out for coffee;
Get out for a walk/drive;
Do a craft;
A reminder, not a distraction:
This list is not about distracting yourself to keep yourself busy so you don’t binge. It’s about recognizing that there are many things you do like to do but that often, in the moment, you forget what they are and default to the old tried and true food approach even when you no longer need to for coping reasons. This list will help you to remind yourself that there are things you really enjoy doing, some that are more physical and more interactive than others, and therefore, likely, at least one thing on the list will appeal to you and be reasonable, regardless of the time of day/night.
In my own healing journey, once I put my list on my fridge, I found it so easy to choose to do something other than binge because I really liked doing those things and simply wouldn’t think of it in the moment that my mind had already turned to food as my solution. Remember, this is when you’re fairly far along in your healing and are able, most times, to sidestep the old “food to cope” pattern with your new tools. If you’re not there yet, make the list and post it on the fridge, but be realistic that more often than not right now, you’re going to need to use your tools (List of Stressors, Drill Sgt. Dialogue, 4-7-8 breathing exercise) to identify and overcome the all-or-nothing thinking that has overtaken you. If you just try to kick in to one of these activities without identifying your underlying trigger, you’re just distracting yourself, and that means you’ve missed an opportunity to identify and heal an old stressful experience or all-or-nothing story.
If you’re not checking in throughout the day:
If you’re not checking in throughout the day and just find that your desire for food to cope stands out a bit more then and is easier to set aside, that would likely mean that during the day there are other people around (therefore you feel more self-conscious and accountable) and that you have a certain structure to your day and a certain amount of distraction available to you that isn’t there at night. Therefore, when you feel the urge to overeat during the day, it’s easier to push it away (because you’re distracted) or to identify the cause because you are eager to not use food to cope in that environment (so others don’t see/have judgement) and so your motivation to identify your stressor is greater than it is when it’s just you at home.
The structure that our typical daytime life provides can create a false sense of “safety” or “wellness” around food. “I am “good” throughout the day, it’s when I get home that’s the problem,” is a typical statement I’ll hear from clients (and was my own story, too). The truth is, I’m only “good” through the day (struggle less with wanting to binge) because I’m distracted; because others are around and I feel less free to eat (or to eat certain foods) because I have to conform to certain meal times/break times and can’t just munch whenever I want.
The truth is, if I’m keeping it together at work and then binging at home, unless I have an abusive home life, I’m really not keeping it together at work in any real and healthy way, I’m just pushing my needs and feelings away during the day and then they all come rushing up when I get into an environment that is less demanding/stimulating and allows me a moment to be still.
It is very common for those who use food to cope to have this pattern of the day seemingly being not a problem and the nighttime being a real challenge.
The truth is, if I can’t be anywhere any time around any kind of food and feel peaceful and trusting of myself to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full, I am still engaged in using food to cope and I have underlying triggers/stressors that need my attention; I don’t have integrity with myself (my words and actions are not in alignment), and therefore I feel fraudulent and insecure in my actions/connection with others, and I feel scared/anxious when I think about being alone with food.
The solution to all this mess is to remind yourself that food is just a coping strategy (if I’m eating when I’m not hungry or engaging in restriction), and that you only ever need a coping strategy when you’ve told yourself there is something in your life that you need to change /need to see changing but that you have no power to change it. This is what we call an all-or-nothing story. It paralyzes you. It creates anxiety and depression in you. It leads you to numb out and check out in a variety of ways, most of them harmful. So, the solution lies in being able, as quickly as possible, to recognize when you’re using food to cope, identify the underlying stressor or story and resolve it.
That’s what we’re here for. Let us know if you’re ready for some support to step free of the food power struggle once and for all.
Have a great week!!
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© Michelle Morand, 2010