Strong emotions make us feel uncomfortable. When we feel uncomfortable, we usually don’t like it. We will often want to do anything to feel better, this is when our coping mechanisms kick in to try to manage these emotions.
Coping mechanisms often briefly block the discomfort to give us a short break from them. Some coping mechanisms can be healthy like going for a walk, playing with a pet, or speaking to friends. Other coping mechanisms such as bingeing, alcohol or excessive exercise are less helpful.
It rarely works to just avoid a coping mechanism, without dealing with the emotions underneath as often another one will pop up in its place. The underlying emotions remain unless they are experienced or released in some way.
When we feel uncomfortable, we often feel unsafe. These strong feelings may be reminding you of a time when you were younger and felt unsafe, scared or intensely uncomfortable.
One way of dealing with the underlying discomfort is to sit with it and to experience the feelings until they pass. However, this strategy can be tricky for people with past trauma, for times when lots of other things are going on and for particularly intense feelings.
When we feel uncomfortable with ourselves or with a situation, this is likely to trigger a binge. However, when we feel comfortable, with ourselves and the situation, we are less likely to want to binge.
Have a think about when you feel the urge to binge eat or emotionally eat, are you feeling comfortable or uncomfortable with yourself and the situation? This is different to eating a large meal as part of a celebration. It is likely that binges and emotional eating episodes are in response to a feeling of discomfort about something, somebody, or yourself.
When you notice that you are feeling uncomfortable, finding comfort in a situation can be a great way of avoiding a binge. When we feel comfortable, we feel safer. When we feel safer, we are likely to be in a place where our logical brain can make healthy choices. When we want to binge, we are out of our calm, relatively comfortable daily life mode where we feel safe. When those visceral emotions kick in, we go into our binge zone. Finding comfort can get us back into our calm zone.
Here is a quick exercise to help find comfort in moments of discomfort, which can help stop a binge.
Finding comfort in a situation can soothe the discomfort by calming our nervous system and help us feel safe and therefore more able to control our eating.
Signs include feeling numb, hot, breathless, dizzy, overwhelmed, ‘itchy’, restless, or sick. It is always wise to see your GP if you regularly experience any of these symptoms to rule out other causes. However, if it is due to emotional discomfort, when you feel any of these things, then it is likely that bingeing urges may soon follow.
Look for comfort.
When you feel discomfort, look to find comfort in the situation. Comfort is also a way of getting connection, safety, enjoyment and contentment. It is also a way of pausing to switch on your logical mind and self-soothe.
Here are some ideas to try, different things will work for different people and some of these may even be triggering for some people, so only try things that appeal to you.
Have a piece of jewellery which you can touch.
Go to a happy place in your mind, which you can think of in advance.
Look for something about the situation that you like.
Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two you can smell and one you can taste.
Find a pet, person or toy to cuddle.
Listen to a human voice, either on radio, audiobook or on the phone.
Find some space in a situation, even if you make excuses and visit the bathroom.
Comfort and confidence
For many people comfort and confidence go hand in hand. When you are feeling comfortable about yourself, you are likely to feel more confident. When you are confident, you are likely to feel more comfortable. When you are comfortable with yourself, you are more likely to have confidence that you can stop bingeing. This can also be helpful when you are anxious about a situation or event.
You could try this strategy to use comfort to increase confidence in various situations:
Keep an open mind about what will happen.
You are unlikely to be rightly guessing the future. When you think that you will hate an event, it is much more likely that you will. If you go in with an open mind, then you are less likely to be looking for the negative. As our minds look to confirm what we already know, dreading an event is likely to lead to that expectation being fulfilled.
Plan a way out so you feel in control.
We all like feeling in control and often find it difficult managing eating when we do not know exactly what the situation will be with food. Try planning a way out of a situation which you can use if you need to, this will help you feel more in control, more comfortable and confident that you can manage.
Make sure that you feel comfortable before you go.
Try to feel as comfortable as possible before doing something. If you feel comfortable at the start, then it is likely that your confidence will be higher. For example, rather than wearing something you feel that you should, or that is a bit tight, try wearing something that you feel is comfortable whether or not it is what you think you ‘should’ wear. Do whatever you can to feel comfortable before you go into a worrying situation.
The take home message is, whenever you feel discomfort, look for comfort. While simple, this is a proactive and simple way to help yourself feel good. When you feel good, you are more likely to do things that feel good and avoid bingeing.
Binge Eating Therapy
I specialise in eating disorders and have 17 years’ experience as a behaviour change and obesity prevention scientist at Cambridge University. I’ve been there and I get it, and now support people with binge eating, emotional eating, weight loss struggles, and bulimia.
I help clients discover and take charge of their hidden eating triggers and transform their relationship with food. Sessions often focus on getting freedom from constant thoughts about food and weight and escaping the cycle of yo-yo dieting and weight gain. Gain understanding about what has prevented you from recovery in the past so you can overcome that, and live life without restriction or bingeing.
I combine counselling, to understand and overcome emotional barriers, with the strategies and tools of health coaching. The combination of counselling and coaching is powerful for making lasting change.
"Kirsten supported me through a really difficult time when I was using binge-eating to avoid feelings around a relatively new diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. My binge-eating had a seriously negative impact on my mental health, self-esteem and relationships. With Kirsten’s help and expertise, I finally have my life back and it changed my life. I cannot thank her enough and fully recommend her services. Thank you Kirsten."
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Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd is a registered company in England and Wales (Company number 12673809).
The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.