Interrupting the Binge!
One of the most frequent areas of work that I do with anyone, whether they are an emotional eater, have an eating disorder or a food addiction is finding ways to interrupt an often uncontrollable compulsion to eat food. Usually that eating happens at home in the evening, but it can happen at any time or anywhere. Moreover, people have different levels of awareness during a binge. Sometimes people are fully aware of what they are doing, other times there is partial awareness, and in some cases people lose awareness entirely before and during a binge. They don't know what they are eating, why they are eating or cannot even stop when they are full.
There have been two techniques that I have been using, but have recently incorporated a third, which seems to work quite well. The first technique I use is to understand the thought and/or emotion that occurs prior to the binge. The second one that I use, especially for those unaware of their binging behaviour, is to listen to how people talk about their eating or about their feelings towards binging in general in session. Oftentimes, people will discuss in session various thoughts, emotions and behaviours involved in those binges in session without even knowing they are discussing them. I am able to bring those to awareness and create inteventions that bring more awareness to the binging episode.
The third method, that I have recently started using involves Gestalt psychotherapy, and it is one that I want to talk about more in depth. I was trained as a Gestalt therapist starting in 2004, and have explored other therapeutic modalities since my training. However, this year, I have started taking two courses offered by my alma mater and am thrilled that I have. Gestalt focuses deeply on how the therapist feels in the presence of the client. It goes more deeply than say, focusing on shared emotions between a client and therapist. Such shared emotions would occur, say if a client tells a sad story and a therapist feels sad. Gestalt, however, focuses on what may be in the background for the client and therapist as they are telling that sad story. For example, the therapist may be fully invested in the story, or the therapist may find themselves focusing on the client's hair (of all things) during the story. Similarly, even though the therapist is hearing a sad story, the therapist may be smiling as well, or notice that the client is smiling a little as well, while telling the sad story.
So what the therapist is doing is searching for something of relevance, or a small detail, that the client may be missing that can be brought forward to interrupt the binge cycle. For example, a client may feel anxious or guilty describing the binge episode in therapy - and in fact guilt is a very common emotion surrounding binging behaviour, whether it is experienced in session or after a binge. The therapist and client can then focus on addressing the guilt that the client is feeling in the description of the binge. In embodied Gestalt work where a focus is placed on how a feeling, thought or behaviour manifests itself in bodily sensations, it is common for the therapist to ask where and/or how a feeling of guilt is experienced in the body at the moment it is being described. The therapist can then see how their body feels as well, and then the two can work towards resolving the guilt by comparing perspectives on the bodily sensations experienced, as well as any other thoughts or feelings that may occur between them. Oftentimes, this leads to a client thinking about their own solutions to interrupting the binge, by incorporating feelings from the body as well as their own cognitions and thoughts.
Working through or with the body is critical for anyone with an eating issue, whether it is emotional eating an eating disorder or food addiction. If, during a binge, the body's natural cues to stop eating are being ignored, bringing any sensation to the body through the therapeutic process will indeed be helpful.
So, how can you do this yourself? As you recount a binging episode in your mind, notice how
your body feels - any bodily sensation is important. Also, perhaps notice where your mind wanders, or even where your eyes settle. As I think about my own, my foot deliberately shakes and disrupts the screen as I am typing. In fact it shakes quite heavily and forcefully. So I soften up the shaking on purpose. I gently let my ankle rotate, so that I am able to continue typing. I realize my binges are a large distraction for me... I think about the consequences frequently and I don't want to. If I soften my foot shaking, I realize I can control my thoughts a little bit more, but in a gentle way.I reaize my binge urges can be equally forceful. Softening them up would involve acknowledging that they are there, and then talking myself "down" from them the way one would talk one's self off a ledge.
So, there is a way to interrupt the binge by doing embodied awareness of it. Now what clients can try is experiementing with that for a week or two and seeing how effective it is at managing binges - does it help, or not? Can it avoid a binge altogether, or even just delay it? Binging behaviour is often very entrenched and complex, so it can't be expected that one "foot" exercise will eliminate them entirely - but much like changing any habit or unwanted behaviour, can such an interruption contribute to the overall progress of ending such behaviour? Can you see yourself incorporating it long-term? Does it lead to other helpful observations? If so, you've done good work!