WHY IS MY BINGE EATING GETTING WORSE?
Therapists who treat binge eating will tell you they've been busier than ever in the past 2 years. Research indicates mental health issues have worsened since Covid-19 began, particularly among women and adolescents. All eating disorders worsened, as well, including binge eating.
As an eating disorder therapist in Plano, TX, I feel like I've been on the mental health front lines for the past 2 years. I won't bore you with the list of what has pushed us all to the edge during this neverending pandemic. You know it by now. It's a lot. If you've become frustrated with how out of control your eating feels, you're definitely not alone. Yet, as usual with issues around eating and weight, we tend to blame ourselves. We don't understand the WHY. This blog post highlights individual factors that might explain why your binge eating may be worse than ever right now.
A quick overview of how eating disorders develop: Eating disorders are genetically-based and environmentally triggered. As some experts have said: Genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger. For many who already had an eating disorder before Covid, their eating disorder symptoms worsened. Covid stress triggered disordered eating behaviors in others. For some, Covid triggered disordered eating to BECOME a full-blown diagnosable eating disorder.
There are many reasons to explain the reasons mental health issues and eating disorders have gotten worse in the past two years. In this blog post I will discuss personal or individual factors.
BINGE EATING IS WORSE BECAUSE WE ARE OUT OF OUR WINDOW OF TOLERANCE (AND CONTINUE TO BE...)
I've written before about the Window of Tolerance. This is an ideal emotional place where we are able to handle all that life throws at us. Ideally, we might get angry or sad, but we adjust fairly quickly- we regulate our emotions with our great coping skills. Then when life stress knocks us off balance, or out of this window, we IDEALLY have skills to manage this, too.
Even if your coping skills were fantastic before Covid hit, you were thrown off a bit in 2020. If your coping skills were a bit wobbly anyway... Covid was the straw that broke your back. There should be no shame in this. We've all coped the best we could. It makes total sense that our usual coping skills haven't worked as well as they used to. Who knew how to cope with a global pandemic???
We all have stories about how Covid has impacted people we care about. One of my clients always struggled with poor body image and a tendency to restrict and overeat, but was able to manage this ok until Covid hit. For the past 2 years, she has become caretaker to her elderly parents displaced from an assisted living facility, and their health problems increased during this time. Another client was already struggling with binge eating before Covid. When Covid hit, her company cut salaries and her live-in partner was laid off. Not only did her binge eating increase, her partner became depressed and had to seek mental health treatment, as well. These clients were able to manage stressors fairly well before Covid, but afterward it was just too much. The stress overwhelmed their ability to cope well.
BINGE EATING IS WORSE BECAUSE WE ARE EXPERIENCING A COLLECTIVE TRAUMA
Researchers have written about this idea of the pandemic as a trauma. I like this definition of trauma: any event that overwhelms your ability to cope. If we think of the past 2 years in this way, it makes sense that we have been living outside of our Window of Tolerance. Many eating disorder experts think of eating disorder behaviors as a way to attempt to cope with emotional distress. I agree. Here are a few ways we might try to cope with strong emotions (such as the ones we've had in the past 2 years):
WE ARE SEEKING COMFORT WHEN WE EAT
When our brain and body sense discomfort and uncertainty, we problem-solve. So, the primitive part of our brain will move us AWAY from pain and TOWARD comfort and pleasure. Very often this looks like comfort eating, emotional eating, or overeating. All of these are normal and ok. Food is naturally rewarding (it's supposed to be!), so it makes sense that we seek food in stressful times. Our brain is just trying to help us out! It doesn't want us to feel pain!
During the pandemic, social isolation has led to loneliness and increased social anxiety, which has played a part in increased rates of mental health issues. Some folks have had to quarantine multiple times, and others have had to practice social distancing to a greater degree than others due to medical conditions. In an attempt to cope with this stress, many of my clients have turned to food for comfort, and some have experienced an increase in binge eating behaviors.
SOME OF US ARE MORE REWARDED BY FOOD
Furthermore, it is believed that some people are genetically predisposed to find food more rewarding than others, though we don't yet understand all the nuances of this. The bottom line is this: it makes sense that we would turn to food in a time of great stress. It makes sense, too, that some people are more prone to this than others. That's totally ok! I think we should embrace this fact. Fighting this fact will just make matters worse. Moreover, turning to food does NOT make you a bad or weak person. I actually encourage my clients to frame this behavior in this way. Maybe we can even thank our brains for finding a way to cope with an unprecedented trauma.
I will share here my own personal experience. In the early days of the pandemic, my husband and I and our 3 kids would drive around searching for the places that were still open and serving food to-go. The highlight of many of those first few lonely months was sitting in our car together eating barbeque, ice cream, or coffee, watching other humans outside our car windows. We sat in bed together watching movies and eating ice cream and candy. Food comforted us. It bonded us together in an otherwise incredibly isolating time. I am grateful we had food to offer us some comfort.
WE ARE SEEKING CONTROL
Covid turned our world completely upside down. When one senses a loss of control in their environment, it's a NORMAL response for the brain to attempt to gain control elsewhere. For someone with an eating disorder, regaining control involves changing their body shape and weight through decreased calories, purging (self-induced vomiting), or increased exercise.
For some people, these behaviors will lead to a drive to eat more. Sometimes this leads to binge eating, eating that goes beyond comfort eating or overeating and feels out of control. Again, this makes sense if we consider that our brain does not want us to feel pain or discomfort! But we sometimes mistake pain relief for pleasure. Binge eating can distract us from pain, and make us think this is pleasure. For a moment we forget about the pain. We can forget about the awful reality that we may be facing once the binge is over. Then when reality sets in again, shame often rushes in, and the attempts to control one's body and eating behaviors begin again.
WHAT SHOULD WE/CAN WE DO ABOUT BINGE EATING GETTING WORSE?
As I said earlier, first offer yourself some grace and compassion. You now understand that it's NORMAL and expected to respond to distress in an attempt to soothe and comfort and regain control. Food might have truly helped you cope with the scary and unpredictable world we've lived in recently. If your reliance on food as a coping tool is no longer serving you well, there are ways to improve this. Therapy can be a great place to explore this.
If you need help understanding why your binge eating has gotten worse, I’d love to help. I OFFER VIDEO THERAPY FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me here or at 469-850-2420 or email@example.com 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 anxiety, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My counseling office is in Plano, Texas, and is conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.