Stop Binge Eating Using Emotion Regulation Skills

Do you ever feel like things are harder for you than others?  You see colleagues and friends taking stressful moments in stride with a quick meditation or a walk around the block.  Meanwhile, you’re still upset about a comment someone made last week. Maybe you’re starting to wonder if you missed that day of school when everyone learned to magically move on from things.  What do you do when the coping skills that work for others don’t seem to be helping you the same way, especially if you struggle with binge eating? 

Window of Tolerance

The truth is that we all have different thresholds for emotional intensity.  I teach clients about our “window of tolerance. This is basically the level of stimulation our nervous system can manage before it interferes with our functioning.  IN our window of tolerance, we may struggle, but we are aware of our feelings. We tolerate them well, and making rational decisions about how to cope. When something pushes us OUT of this window, we make decisions that feel good in the moment, but don’t serve us well long-term. This could be buying something we can’t afford or yelling at our kids.

What Does All This Have To Do With Binge Eating?

Look, we all have times when our emotions are so strong that we feel unable to manage them well.  Some folks struggle for a bit, but can call upon healthy coping skills fairly quickly and easily. Others have a harder time with this; the emotion feels too strong to manage, or maybe they never learned adaptive coping skills in the first place. 

In fact, research shows that people who binge eat are often born with a predisposition to experience the highs and lows of life more intensely. They also tend to grow up in environments where their feelings are not validated. Healthy management of emotions may not have been modeled for them.  Studies also show that those who engage in binge eating and overeating find food to be more rewarding than others. It makes sense that for them, food steps in to save the day to distract from difficult emotions.

While there’s nothing wrong with eating as a way to cope on occasion (and I also dislike the term “overeating” because it suggests there’s some perfect amount of food to eat, and anything beyond this is dysfunctional), when it becomes the only way you know to soothe, it actually gets in the way of moving forward. Your relationship with food, which is meant to be positive and joyful, becomes a source of anxiety and shame. Your relationship with your body, meant to be connected and loving, becomes fearful and embattled. Eating beyond fullness too often or eating to the point of discomfort keeps you disconnected from ways to truly take good care of yourself.  As an eating disorder therapist, it’s my goal to help you find a path to feeling joyful and competent with your eating and with your body.  

Emotion Regulation Skills: Staying in the Window

The tools in my last blog fall under the category of DBT Distress Tolerance skills ( DBT is Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a research-backed therapy to help with many psychological issues, including eating disorders like Binge Eating Disorder, anxiety, and depression. Distress Tolerance skills help you better tolerate being out of your window. They give you space to find your way back to the window where you can make better choices. This blog introduces you to the DBT skill of Emotion Regulation, or remaining stable inside the window.    

Understanding Emotions

In learning to regulate emotions, it’s important to know first which emotions we’re experiencing.  If we are to decrease emotional suffering, we must get better at identifying and naming our feelings. DBT teaches mindfulness skills (discussed in another blog post) to take stock of which emotions are present, when they started to bother us, and what may have triggered them. These skills also help us to learn about the function of our emotions so we can accept them. Judging them only adds to our emotional distress. 

If Emotions Lead to Such Poor Decisions, Why Do We Have Them In The First Place? 

Picture this: you’re lying peacefully in your cozy bed. Right as you’re about to fall asleep, you hear a quick chirp from somewhere in the house.  

Great. One of the smoke alarms is running out of batteries.  Should you try to ignore the chirping and see if you can sleep through it?  Should you take out the battery and risk not knowing if there’s actually a fire?  Or should you put your slippers on, root through the junk drawer, and hope you have a replacement? 

Just like the chirping, and indeed like the smoke alarm itself, emotions serve a very important purpose! They let us know what we need, and motivate us to get those needs met.   For example, when I feel lonely, this can be a sign that I need more connection with friends and family. Of course, this isn’t always simple. My friends might be busy or I may have a work deadline. I might even feel too anxious and self-conscious to reach out to anyone.  

In this scenario, if I were to binge, it would be like taking the batteries out of my smoke alarm.  I would block the feeling of loneliness, but I would also block other important emotions like gratitude, excitement, and accomplishment. On the other hand, if I were to reach out to someone despite my anxiety about doing so, I would be using the Emotion Regulation skill of Opposite Action. 

Opposite Action: Patting Your Head and Rubbing Your Belly

Being mindful about an emotion doesn’t mean we always have to indulge or obey its needs -- quite the opposite!  In fact, when people have been managing difficult feelings by binge eating for a long time, it can take a while to recalibrate.  I teach clients about the Emotion Regulation tool called Opposite Action as a way to support this process.  

For example, when anxiety makes you want to isolate, it may be best to make plans with a friend.  When you're worried about trying on swimsuits, it may help to challenge yourself to do it with a supportive friend. Avoiding the negative emotions may make them stronger in the long run..   

Another version of this is the idea of “Fake It Til You Make It.” When a client is nervous about a job interview, for example, we imagine how their posture might look if they felt more confident.  Research has shown that these physiological cues like sitting up straighter when you’re not feeling confident, or turning up the corners of your mouth when you’re sad, trick your mind into believing your body. 

Reducing Emotional Vulnerability

DBT suggests these skills to proactively to expand your window of tolerance. When challenging moments arise, you are more likely to make rational decisions. I like to describe these as “coping ahead.” 

  1. Nourishing yourself by eating balanced meals will keep you in a better space to manage the ups and downs of life.  Registered Dietitians can help you work toward this goal. I recommend finding practitioners who have experience working with eating disorders.
  2. Treat physical illnesses, as these can make you vulnerable to emotional dysregulation.  If you’ve had weight stigmatizing or shaming experiences in the past with medical practitioners, work with a therapist on how to advocate for yourself or to find a primary care doctor with more sensitivity to food and body image issues. 
  3. Limit mood-altering drugs like caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and other substances.  Not only can these chemicals mimic emotional dysregulation (hey, alcohol is called a “depressant” for a reason!) they can also lead to impaired judgment and binge eating.
  4. Sleep well.  Sleep has a strong connection with the hormones that control mood and appetite, and when we’re tired, we’re biologically vulnerable to binging since food gives us energy.  So don’t give your inner caveman a chance to come out! If you have trouble falling asleep, try things like limiting screen-time before bed, listening to a meditation app to help you relax, or treating yourself to a light-blocking sleep mask.  
  5. Build mastery by engaging in fulfilling activities daily that increase confidence and competence.  Learn a new language! Take a pottery class! Research beekeeping! The possibilities are endless. These activities might also include movement, depending on what your treatment team members recommend for your care. 
  6. Increase positive emotions by consciously making gratitude lists and tending to your relationships.  Research shows that these proactive practices can put money in the emotional bank for the times we need it most. 

I Do Windows

Hopefully, this post gave you a sense of the power you have to accept your emotions and make choices that will benefit you in the long-term. 

If you want to learn emotion regulation skills to decrease binging or overeating, I’d love to work with you! If you’re looking for eating disorder therapy in Plano, Texas or just want to make peace with your body, contact me at 469-850-2420 or for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.

My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexiabulimiabinge eatingovereating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.