We are influenced by the world around us, and the world influences us. Different people react to the same situation in different ways. Our unique past experiences which alter how we react in the present.
Being stuck and binge eating
We adjust to our World the best way we can, given our past. The adaptations that we make when we are young often last, even when they no longer serve us.
One example is binge eating. Binge eating has many roles, including comfort and escape from the overwhelm and anxiety in our minds. This coping strategy may have been formed as a child when we were given food to stop us crying. In adulthood, we still automatically use food to manage emotions, even though the situation we are in now is different. This often happens without us really thinking about it, so it can feel irrational.
When we binge eat, we deprive ourselves of discovering alternative coping strategies. Bingeing also leading to more of the uncomfortable feelings it is being used to escape from.
Binge eating as a creative adaptation
Humans are inherently creative, and we use that creativity to adapt to our situation. These adaptations can both nourish and punish us. As habits are easily engrained, they are difficult to break, we often do not feel we have the support or vision to be another way. We may not think that we can.
If we are stuck living in certain ways, such as in cycles of binge eating, then it is difficult to grow and thrive as we wish to.
We often get stuck in ‘automatic’ ways of being with food. We follow diets, have ‘rules’ and ‘don’t’ eat certain things. Doing this stops us from being flexible with new situations and adapting to change, such as easily dealing with unplanned meals or events involving food.
Food uncertainty
Most of us agree that a healthy way to be around food is to be able to consider unexpected situations in a balanced way and be flexible to whatever food presents itself without guilt, feelings of restriction, discomfort, or embarrassment.
The reality, for many of us is different. When we are in a food situation where we are not in ‘control’, we can experience anxiety and overwhelm. These unpleasant feelings can be so severe that we can avoid situations which might involve food that we can’t ‘control’.
Unfinished food cycles: constant thoughts about food
Unfinished business or the Zeigarnik effect suggests that humans have an innate need to complete the uncompleted. We don’t necessarily have to finish it at the time, it can be later. If we leave things unfinished they will haunt us in our minds and bodies, until they are resolved.
This cycle theory can also apply to food. If we do not fully finish an eating cycle, this can contribute to constant thoughts about food.
  • Sensation: Rumbling stomach.
  • Awareness: Begin to realise what the sensation is telling you – I want to eat.
  • Mobilisation: You move to satisfy the need - go to the fridge.
  • Action: Do something to fulfil need - pick up some food.
  • Final contact: You are in the experience - eating.
  • Satisfaction: The immediate need is satisfied - hunger is sated.
  • Withdrawal: The cycle is finished – you feel full and remove yourself from the experience.
  • Void: There is space for the next feeling to emerge.

What if the cycle is unfinished?
If we don’t finish every stage of this cycle, then we can get stuck thinking about food and not feeling satisfied. Your mind still wants to complete the cycle.
Examples of the cycle not being finished are:
  • Not eating when you are hungry.
  • Not acknowledging hunger.
  • Not feeling full as you eat too fast or while doing something else.
  • Feeling guilt or regret, so you do not get the satisfaction from the food.
Can you think about your eating experiences and notice where your cycle stops? How can you finish your cycles of eating to feel more satisfied?
Why can behaviour seem irrational?
Sometimes a behaviour like binge eating seems irrational. Most people know that they want to stop but can’t seem to do so. However, when this behaviour is considered in the historical context and current time, it makes sense. Everyone’s experiences are different, so everyone has a slightly different map of how they get to where they are today and how they react in every situation. Once you become aware of it, there is usually a logical reason for why we get stuck doing these behaviours.
Voices in our heads keep us stuck
Fixed patterns of behaviour are often kept going by two voices in our heads these are sometimes called the Top Dog and Underdog:

Top Dog: I should lose weight and eat less chocolate.

Underdog: What difference are a few chocolates going to make? You only live once.
As each voice dismisses the other, we remain in limbo, doing a behaviour we think is irrational.
The trap of familiarity
Familiarity is comforting. This is the case even if it isn’t a healthy place to be. Familiar behaviours, often created in the past, such as binge eating or restrictive diets, can keep us stuck in cycles of shame, loneliness and dissatisfaction.
The paradoxical theory of change

The paradoxical theory of change or Beisser’s theory says that we can only start to change as soon as we accept what we are and stop trying to change.

Awareness is a vital catalyst to change. The reason this theory works is because of awareness. As soon as we give up on trying to be something else and accept who and where we are, we have a greater awareness of our true selves. Awareness is so important as by keeping ourselves stuck trying to be something else, we are protecting ourselves from uncertainty but can leave us living a shrunken life not seeing possibilities in front of us.
Binge eating can be linked to this ‘stuckness’ in several ways, including:
  • We withdraw from our environment and turn into ourselves: food to numb.
  • Food is used to get what we need from our environment: food to self-soothe.
  • We use food to separate ourselves from fully experiencing emotions, not allowing ourselves to fully live life: food as sedation.
Strategies to get unstuck and to find closure

These are some exercises to find awareness and closure to encourage change. It is your closure that matters, so none of these strategies involve anyone else.

To get a more accurate view of where you are now, to increase awareness, have a go at drawing, sculpting, or painting where you are now or even your relationship with food. It is likely that your awareness will increase. Increased awareness is necessary for change.
Letter writing
  • Do things you wish you had said swirl around your head?
  • Do those thoughts keep you awake at night?
  • Are they keeping you stuck from moving on?
If so, have a go at writing or drawing what you would like to have said. This can help you finish that cycle so you can move on.
Finish an unfinished conversation.
  • Sit next to an empty chair and imagine the person is there.
  • Try finishing a conversation or saying what remains unsaid.
  • Tell the person what you wish you had said in person.
  • Notice how you feel.
Venture into the unknown
Nothing new can emerge into filled space. Stopping binge eating involves venturing away from familiarity and into the unknown, through a ‘growing edge’. At the growing edge, there is a ‘liminal’ or ‘between’ space. Being in this space involves letting go of the familiar and being open to what else could emerge. Are you willing to venture into the unknown? Even with one toe? How can you experience your growing edge and liminal space?

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.

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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.