I’ve used the word ‘managing’ in the title of this blog, rather than my initial idea of ‘recovering from’, for a reason.
What I’m learning about mental health and eating disorders is that they never really leave you; there’s no cure, no remission, no full recovery. At least, I don’t think so. It seems to me that the only way to get on with your life when you suffer from something like an eating disorder is to learn how to manage it. To figure out how to acknowledge your condition and then be happy despite it. To find ways to keep the dark and damaging thoughts at bay as best you can.
This isn’t meant to be a post that says ‘hey, you’ll never get over your disorder so what’s the point in trying!’ – it’s supposed to say that the sooner you accept that it’s part of who you are, but that you don’t want it to rule your life any more, the sooner you can start finding ways to manage it, and live alongside it.
For someone like me, who suffers with low mood and intense episodes of binge eating, I believe that identifying the things that trigger me to binge eat and devising ways to get around them is going to be key in helping me manage my disorder and get my physical and mental health back on track. The more self aware I become, the closer I get to beating this thing.
So in this post, I’m going to explore the main triggers that I’ve become aware of that instigate my binges, and I’m using this exercise to generate ideas on how to tackle these triggers and eventually turn them into something else.
Of course, these are very personal to me and don’t apply for everyone with Binge Eating Disorder, although I imagine there may be correlation with others who suffer from this too.
** Trigger warning – if you do suffer from binge eating or any other disorders, talking about this stuff may actually trigger you or bring up feelings to binge. That is not the intention of this post – I want to explore my own personal triggers and hopefully offer ways for you to manage them too, if they resonate with you, but if you’re experiencing a bad time with your eating it may be best for you not to read on. You’ll know best.**
1. Being home alone at night
This is one of the biggest for me – I live with my boyfriend James, and when he’s out at band practice for hours, or staying back up in Middlesbrough for the night whilst I’m still in Salford, this is often a peak time for my binge eating brain to take hold and my willpower to slip.
One of the main components that makes a binge is the fact that you’re alone, without the shame or judgement of having your eating habits seen by others. A key part of my binge eating disorder is finding ‘opportunities’ to eat as much as possible whilst still appearing as normal, and being home alone for a night is definitely one of those ‘opportunities’. I get to eat whatever I want, where no one can see, and dispose of the evidence afterwards. All done in secret, which only boosts the cycle of guilt and self-loathing afterwards.
How can I tackle this?
An obvious way would be to avoid being in the situation, but that’s simply not realistic for life and would put far too much pressure on James. To be able to fully manage my disorder, I need to learn to be able to live like a person without it, and that includes being alone and having enough self-restraint to still eat like a ‘normal’ person would. However, it could help for me to, in the early stages of my journey, keep myself busy on those nights by seeing friends, going to the gym; filling the night with an activity so I don’t see it as open for bingeing.
Having something prepared in advance for my tea could also help; the less barriers there are to eating well, the easier it will be to talk myself down from the binge. Having to cook from scratch or go buy something healthy could certainly be considered as a barrier, and a ‘justification’ in my brain for binging on something I know is bad for me instead.
2. Disturbance to my routine and eating on the go
I’m very much a creature of habit, who needs a solid routine to function at my best, and that applies to my eating specifically, as well as life in general.
I’m working on developing an eating routine to help me improve my health that is actually feasible and manageable alongside my condition, and that means that if I have a day where I can’t stick to that routine as closely as I’d like, I start to feel seriously on edge. I need to know that I can have three meals a day, and that I have access to food that I like but that is nutritious too. This is tricky because if you’re out and about exploring somewhere on holiday, or going for a day trip, it may not be possible to plan meals like this, and the people you’re with probably aren’t as bothered about it as you are. When I don’t know what my next meal will be or when it will happen, it’s like I can’t put that part of the day aside and I’m soon unable to think of anything else.
Plus, having to eat on the go for me is a big concern because I’m pretty much vegetarian but also a relentlessly fussy eater, and so finding nutritious things I actually want to eat is hard. This, again, presents a barrier and therefore I talk myself into eating unhealthy foods for me, because I think, ‘well, I can’t find anything else’. Once one thing slips, the whole day can, and I end up having a bad day in terms of food which can sometimes impact my behaviour for days afterwards.
How can I tackle this?
Again, this is about learning to be like a person whose every thought isn’t affected by food – someone who can be spontaneous and maybe miss a meal or eat later than they thought, but their whole week isn’t ruined by it.
I think maybe accepting that I’m not always going to have control over my eating routine is important, and surrendering that control a little. Before a day where I know my eating might be disturbed, think about the different options and what could end up happening and mentally prepare for it. Letting the people who I’m with know where I’m at will be helpful too, so they understand that I need some semblance of a plan and not to ignore it when it starts to make me anxious.
Having things like healthy snacks to always take with me also helps to put my mind at ease, because I know I have something there if needed.
Also, if I do have a bad moment and maybe choose a lunch that I know isn’t as good for me as it should be, there needs to be a certain element of damage control, and accepting that one little slip doesn’t have to turn into a whole weekend of them.
3. Being in the car
My car has long been a place I associate with binge eating – buying an extra chocolate bar and sneaking it at the wheel, having a sharing bag of crisps or M&Ms in the cup holder. It’s shameful, I know. The whole thing is.
A lot of my time has been spent in long car journeys; from Middlesbrough to Seaham, Manchester to Middlesbrough and now Manchester to Newcastle, every week. The car is another ‘opportunity’ that my brain sees for me to eat junk food in a space where no one can see and I won’t be judged. I also often get really tired when driving, and feel like I have no choice but to consume some sugar to get that hit and feel more awake – potentially an excuse but it’s definitely an ongoing problem.
How can I tackle this?
I think this one pretty much boils down to willpower. To paying for petrol at the pump and just getting back in the car. To having a bottle of water to hand and a healthy snack like fruit there if needs be. Listening to podcasts during my journeys so my mind is feeling occupied and inspired rather than empty and obsessive. I’ve gotten better with this one recently but still have slip ups.
4. Going to work in an office
I’ve worked at home, by myself, for a long time – and don’t get me wrong, that can be a big culprit for enabling binge eating too. But in the last 3 months I’ve got a new job which sees me drive in to the office 2 days a week – and wow, did I forget how bad for your health that environment can be.
You’re sat down, all day, and feel more compelled to stay at your desk, take less breaks to refresh your mind, and you’re without the freedom you have at home. If you forget to prepare your lunch beforehand, as I often do, you end up popping to the shop to get something, and then your mind wanders to the things that other, ‘normal’ people get to eat during the day. A packet of crisps, a chocolate bar for the afternoon (and the drive back to the office, as per my previous point). And, with a lovely boss like mine, there’s often sweet treats available in the office for everyone to share. Before you know it, everything adds up and you’re totally off the rails.
How can I tackle this?
This is something I am still getting used to: I need to change my perception of the office as a place to indulge, and instead to see it as somewhere that I stick to the same eating patterns and behaviours that I’ve almost got nailed during the days I work from home.
I also made the move of asking my boss to leave my desk empty when it comes to ‘Treat Friday’. If I know my willpower can’t withstand the temptation it puts in my way, I remove the temptation. Don’t be afraid to do that; if you can make it easier for yourself, do it.
5. Tiredness and an interrupted sleep pattern
Anyone who knows me, knows I could make sleeping and napping a national sport. I’m pretty much able to sleep at any point, and do often suffer from tiredness and low energy. I’ve often thought that might be due to some other kind of underlying condition, but doctors have never found anything so I guess that’s another story. Maybe I am just a sloth reincarnate, as my boyfriend likes to suggest.
Basically, sleep is important to me. I’m surprisingly pretty good at functioning on a lack of sleep, but those hours need to be caught up for me to get back on track. And, as I’m sure even those without eating issues can testify, when you’re sleep deprived, all your usual standards can easily start to slip. For me, it impacts my eating hugely. I crave sugar to stay alert and the desire to cook disappears.
How can I tackle this?
One of the best ways I’ve found to help keep my eating on track is to take care of myself in every other way. That includes focusing on getting up and ready for the day, showering, cleaning my face, going to netball and making sure I get enough sleep each night. If I’m not battling or feeling low because of those things, it makes facing my food demons a whole lot more manageable.
6. Eating out, or getting a takeaway
A lot of us probably overeat when we go out to a restaurant or decide to have a night in with a takeaway – the portion sizes tend to be unnecessarily large and are out of our control, and when else is it acceptable to have three courses count as one meal?
I love eating out, partially because it’s a lovely thing to do socially, but I have to accept that it’s likely because of my addiction to food. As described earlier, eating out or getting a takeaway is, to me, a huge big flashing ‘opportunity’ sign for me to consume as much food as possible in a way that is socially acceptable.
I’ll tend to order things that I think will be as big as possible (although eating vegetarian food has helped with this a little), will always try to persuade people to get a starter or dessert if I can, and also can’t just order off a menu without thinking whether I’d be able to ‘get away’ with having a side too, alongside my main meal.
Despite the fact I’m always with other people when I eat out, and so it’s not quite the same as hiding and binging on food by myself, I still consider this a trigger and an issue in managing my disorder.
How can I tackle this?
I think the most important thing for this is just seeing eating out as part of my everyday routine, as something to integrate into my healthy eating plan and not a permitted break for me to go crazy. Don’t go overboard, only have one course, skip dessert and avoid sides. I don’t think I’ll ever be the type to order a salad, but there’s always a lighter option to go for.
Again, it’s changing my perception of eating out or getting a takeaway from an opportunity to overeat, into just another part of my day that I have to keep under control.
Ultimately, I hope to get to the point where I don’t have to think like this when eating out – that I can go and indulge and enjoy myself without thinking about the aftermath. But I think to get there, I need to drop the excuse that ‘it doesn’t count because I’m eating out’, and see it for what it currently is – an almost socially accepted way for me to binge.
The key to everything: breaking the habit
All of these triggers are driven by compulsion and cravings that stem from my Binge Eating Disorder, but they have also become so ingrained in my life and my brain’s perception of the everyday that they are not just triggers, they’re fully blown habits too. My mind associates these things with certain feelings and food and that association is so deep, it’s extremely hard to overcome.
The only way to break a habit? Face the situation and change your reaction to it, just once. If you can do it once, you can do it again. And again. And again, until soon the new reaction is your normal reaction, and that becomes your habit.
I’m still not perfect, not that anyone is. I’m still very much ‘in’ this process. I’m writing this post on a day that I gave in to three of the above triggers, and after a weekend where I went very much off track after seeing some success on the scales. I’m not happy about it…but I’m doing my best to not let it consume me.
Tomorrow is a new day if you make it one, and the only way I’m going to overcome this is by taking it one day, and by breaking one habit, at a time.
If you suffer from Binge Eating Disorder or emotional overeating, please use the comments to share your triggers and how you think you can try to tackle them. I want this to be an arena for us all to support and gain strength from each other, and I hope you found my ways to beat my binge eating habits helpful.