Overwhelm can be like being stuck in an emotional tunnel where we don’t see the exit. Ideally a strong emotion would be experienced as a short tunnel when we are able to move through with ease and then come out of the other side relatively unscathed. However, with emotional exhaustion or overwhelm, we feel stuck in a never-ending tunnel without and end in sight. This applies to bingeing when there is a feeling of ‘stuck’, inevitability and no hope of it ending.
Bingeing is a way to get a brief break from overwhelm and emotional exhaustion. This is one reason why it is so difficult to change, there is really a need to manage the overwhelm and we have the wrong tool kit.
Society often encourages us to push our needs aside and just ‘cope’. This is not helpful, bingeing is a way of ‘just coping’. We are often rewarded for working hard, not working well. We need nourishment, rest, and sleep to flourish, and to tackle overwhelm. We don’t need strict deadlines, unrealistic expectations and willpower. However, when we feel stuck, we criticise ourselves, try to do more and get further overwhelmed.
Breaks allow your brain to naturally reach solutions. When feeling stuck, taking a break may help the solution appear. Have you ever been on holiday and had loads of ideas for how to make your life easier, more enjoyable, and more rewarding, only to find that when back in the daily routine, the motivation and insight fades? This is the power of a break.
Self-criticism increases overwhelm. We don’t give ourselves a break when we need one and we criticise ourselves for being overwhelmed. Self-criticism is toxic. Self-criticism encourages our inner perfectionist to give up before we even start (such as starting the diet on Monday) or with the first mistake (breaking the diet once means it is over). This inner perfectionist also keeps us bingeing, either by punishing ourselves, rewarding ourselves, having a brief break, or allowing ourselves to eat too much because the diet starts on Monday.
The emotional exhaustion of overwhelm also comes with isolation and apathy, which keep us more stuck. As overwhelm increases, we isolate ourselves as our ability to care and empathise with others reduces and we are in survival mode. Connecting with others can feel too much as we are already overwhelmed with ourselves. Apathy also joins in, with a feeling of there being no point trying as it won’t matter anyway. We get more stuck and overwhelmed.
It is important to remember that we are overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted because we care, possibly too much.
How to escape overwhelm: close the stress cycle.
As overwhelm is a permanent state of stress, doing things which will mimic the end of a stress cycle can be helpful by encouraging your body and mind to calm down after they have finished.
Things to try are:
Laughing. After the laughter, there is a feeling of relaxation.
Being creative. Being absorbed in art or other creative pursuits can be intense, the ending then can feel calm.
Exercise (if that is safe for you). After the exercise, cooling down is a form of calming.
Dancing around the kitchen. A way of using your body to heighten emotions and then release them.
Notice, Choose, Act or Accept
If something feels overwhelming, a helpful strategy is to review issues individually. We can’t change everything, but we can change lots of things that we don’t think we can. Thinking of the tunnel, we can be so focused on our feet that we forget to look if there is another exit or even a light switch.
This exercise helps you notice the difference between things you can do something about and things you can’t. If you are using your energy focusing on things you can’t do anything about, it leaves very little capacity to influence what you can. In other words: pick your battles.
What are you worrying about?
Can you ‘theoretically’ do anything about it?
If you can’t, could someone else? We often feel stuck due to our overwhelm and past experiences, if someone else could do something, you probably could too.
If you can do something decide whether you want to do something,
If you want to do something, plan what you will do (see Act).
If you don’t want to do anything, then you can try and accept it.
Decide what you will do and make sure it is something that will help you.
Start with a small step.
Worrying about the end point can limit us. Every journey starts with a step.
Remember that difficult things are more likely to be rewarding. If it is a challenge, then it is likely to be worthwhile.
If you decide not to act, or you can’t, then try to accept it.
Sometimes being willing to accept is enough for acceptance to eventually follow.
Managing expectations manages frustrations. Change is difficult. If we are trying to do something impossible, then it is not surprising that we get frustrated and give up. Unrealistic body ideals fit in here. If you are wanting to lose a lot of weight very quickly, it probably not realistic. Perhaps it is better to focus on feeling more energetic rather than the number on the scales. Life is full of challenges and there will always be more pressure on us than we would like the last thing we need is putting more unrealistic goals on ourselves.
Whether you decide to act or not, you probably have more choice than you think. If you can ease the overwhelm enough, more options are likely to be open to you.
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.