Understanding the Binge Cycle
Today we’re going to be covering a big one… the binge cycle. Before getting into this, I want to clarify that this is my rendition of it. There is no one officially recognized “binge cycle” in the literature, and as such, what you will find here is one I’ve come up with over time.
This is based on the various clients I’ve worked with and their experiences with the binge cycle; it’s based on research I’ve done on binge-eating disorder (BED); and it’s based on my own experiential knowledge, having dealt with this monster of a disorder for four years before finally and fully recovering (you can read more about my story here).
We’re going to talk about this cycle today not from a theoretical/educational sense, but instead from a purely practical and usable angle. We will explore each stage of this cycle, what it means, how it ties into the larger picture, and how you can use this to fuel your own recovery.
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This cycle serves to explain not only why we binge in the first place but why (and how) it can get better or worse and why our efforts to reverse things so often seem “futile.”
You might be wondering why it’s so important to track events leading up to (and following) a binge like this. The reason this is so critical to your recovery (and your greater understanding of binge behaviors) is that it lets us track the weak link in the cycle. This is early enough in the cycle that it is where you can effectively take action and finally make a change. We’ll discuss this more near the end of the article.
For now, let’s dive straight into each piece. You can also find a graphic of this cycle I’ve included here:
Mood / Trigger
This first step could be something like feeling depressed or it could be seeing a large amount of food. The reason we start with this is that it is super common for people to link their binge-eating directly to this. We tend to think we know what’s going on, and very often we attribute our binge-eating to some vague mood or trigger.
While things like feeling stressed, depressed, or tired could definitely fuel this cycle for you, these are in fact fairly generic and universal emotions that are rarely the actual piece of the puzzle we’re looking to fix. If you don’t believe me, consider how many times you’ve tried to work on that element alone to no avail.
When we say, “Oh, I just binge because I’m tired; if I get more sleep, it’ll go away” or “This is only happening because I’m going through a rough patch right now in my life,” we are ignoring the fact that a neurobiologically abnormal and harmful behavior is being recruited over and over. While getting better sleep and dealing with our emotions are two undeniably important habits to get into, it is highly unlikely that those things alone are the culprits here.
If that confused you, fret not, just keep reading to see where I’m going with this.
The next step in the cycle after a distinct mood or trigger is the actual urge to binge. Seeing this immediately follow the “Mood / Trigger” step might make you think, “Well then, the mood or trigger was the thing responsible for binge-eating. THAT’S the step we need to deal with.” But not so fast.
In fact, even at this stage, we are not yet at a “damning” moment. This is something I know well, as I learned in my own recovery that this step (the urge to binge) was the weak link for me and the area I needed to address. I had to learn that the urge to binge can arise and does not necessarily have to be followed with binge-eating. We can sit with this urge, using mindfulness, and not let it control us.
There is actually a cascade of neurobiological events occurring between the mood/trigger and the urge to binge. While it’s nice to illustrate it in the simple fashion I have here, so that you can get a clear picture of how the cycle operates, the reality is that this is much more complex.
Even in the case of something like a situational trigger (say, going to a party and seeing loads of your favorite binge foods), the brain must process this, quickly tap into your memory of habitual behaviors, figure out what sort of outcome it wants, and find a way to signal for you to engage in the behavior (which means not only stimulating the neurons and brain regions involved in binge-eating but inhibiting those that try to stop the behavior… something known in human physiology as a “redundancy” measure).
The food acquisition stage refers to the point in which you actually make moves to acquire the foods you are preparing to binge on. This could mean going to a fast food restaurant or a convenience store, or it could mean going to your pantry or literally walking over to the bowls of barbecue-flavored chips that are calling your name.
Interestingly enough, this step is rarely discussed in this context. But it is of the utmost importance if we hope to string together this story of the binge cycle. Clearly, between getting the urge to binge and actually bingeing, something else must happen. The food isn’t going to appear out of thin air!
While it might seem pedantic to even bring it up, for many, many people, this is the weak link in their respective binge cycle. If it’s the trip to the grocery store or the walk to your pantry that seems like the stage where you have the most voluntary control over what happens, then we cannot afford to ignore this.
This stage is about as self-explanatory as it gets: this is where we actually binge-eat. Remember, binge-eating does not just mean “eating a lot of food.” It means eating an abnormally large amount of food in a discrete period of time, often at a faster pace than normal, done in a secretive fashion, accompanied by an “out-of-body experience,” and continued past the point of physical discomfort.
This of course forces the question…
If I’m getting the urge to binge, is it okay to eat a small amount of my binge food?
There are two ways to answer this, as it’s actually a really tricky question.
A. You should never restrict your eating. Telling yourself you cannot have something automatically makes that thing that much more appealing. I cover this in much greater depth in my articles CDR: The One Concept I Teach All My Clients and Are There Any Foods You SHOULDN’T Eat?
B. You need to seriously ask yourself what is going to happen next. Is this your unadulterated, fully informed prefrontal cortex saying, “Yes, the plan is to just eat a small amount, be satisfied with our ability to practice moderation, and then move on”? Or is it your Ed voice (that voice in your head that justifies the binge-eating behaviors time and time again) trying its hardest to get you to binge?
This is the equivalent of telling your child it’s bedtime, only to be met with the usual “Aww, come on Mom, can’t I have just five more minutes?” Unless you have the most responsible and mature child in the world, chances are this child’s motivation to get five more minutes has little to do with them trying to practice moderation and everything to do with them using a small amount of time they know you’ll agree to, just so the fun doesn’t have to stop.
This was my worst binge ever (TRIGGER WARNING: Binge foods and behaviors)
This refers to any behaviors or measures that immediately follow the bingeing, which are largely unproductive (and often counterproductive). This could include compensatory behaviors (exercising, fasting, dieting, purging, abusing stimulants, etc.) or something like isolation or giving up. If you’re interested in learning more about what is actually happening after the binge, check out Do You Absorb All the Calories During a Binge?
Believe it or not, the step that follows the bingeing is arguably more important than the step that immediately precedes it (which, you’ll recall, was food acquisition). This is because this is the step that either stops the cycle, strengthens it, or reroutes it to something new.
One common unproductive response from people in the binge cycle is jumping on a diet. This is also known as “damage control,” and it is an extremely dangerous behavior loop to fall into (if you’re not convinced, here’s 43 reasons not to do it!). When this step is pronounced enough that it renders someone bulimic (i.e. if they routinely purge, abuse laxatives or diuretics, fast, or exercise in response to a binge), we see the danger of this even further exemplified. However, it is worth noting that bulimia nervosa involves a pathophysiology that is distinct from that of BED. This is explored in both my comprehensive overviews of bulimia nervosa and BED.
Reminder of “futility”
In this next step, we remind ourselves that our efforts to fix the binge are futile. This might seem an odd event to include in the cycle, but in fact we cannot afford to ignore it. The impact of this step is extremely important, as it sets in motion a mental state that makes a furthering of the cycle that much more justified.
Here’s an example to explain what this means. If every time you binge, you follow it by frantically searching for diets to try and then subsequently trying and failing at those diets (and as Danny and I discussed in his podcast, diet failure is extremely common), you will start to craft a story in your mind that conquering these binges is a hopeless pipe dream. Every time you binge and then try and fail at dieting, due to the deep-seated emotions wrapped up in all of this (which we’ll dive into more in the next step), your takeaway will always be “I’m a failure and I’m never going to overcome this.”
Not to mention, even if you were able to “stick to” a diet long-term (spoiler alert: I’ve worked with hundreds of clients and can tell you right now you won’t be able to), it would not address the root of the problem. You would live in constant fear of the next binge, using restriction and rigidity to beat yourself into submission and allow for no mistakes whatsoever.
As mentioned in the last step, this continual proof of our “futile” efforts eventually crafts a storyline in our minds. The reminder of futility is in fact an existentially profound stage that leads to over-identifying with our emotions.
To understand what this means, consider these two statements:
I am depressed.
I feel depressed.
While the difference between those two might not jump out at you at first, it’s actually quite significant. The first statement attaches the depression to your ultimate identity. This means you see yourself and all you have to offer as being an inherently “depressed person.” Everything you do, everyone you love, every thought you have… it is all colored by this depression you have attached to your identity.
The second statement, on the other hand, separates you from the feeling of depression. It treats the depression as a distinct, non-judged feeling that you happen to be experiencing in the moment (even if it is chronic and more than just situational depression).
I know some of you reading this will take issue with my denouncing of the identification with emotions, especially if what you’re going through has played such a huge role in your life. Nowhere is this more true than an eating disorder, a monster of a disease that threatens to control your entire life and never let you be satisfied with yourself again, let alone trust yourself. How could I possibly say that this isn’t a part of your identity?!
Through my struggle with BED, it felt like every meal was a battle and every binge urge a test. I felt like I might never go back to seeing food like I had before: as something I enjoy eating without having to restrict or punish myself. I couldn’t just sit and eat dinner with family or be left alone around my binge foods anymore. Surely, this disorder had taken over my life!
Well, as it turns out, one of the major lessons I learned from mindfulness was that it had not taken over my life. I remained in control the whole time, even when it didn’t feel like I had that control. It was always ultimately my decision to binge or my decision to let those binges amplify. By detaching myself from the binge-eating and the depression, I gained the freedom to see those things as afflictions I happen to have and mental states that can be managed and challenged, and not life sentences.
Finally, we arrive at amplified emotionality (of course, the nature of a cycle is that by definition there is no “final step”). When we not only feel our emotions but identify with them, these emotions blow up in intensity. When you only feel the depression, for example, you can effectively compartmentalize it and continue to work on what you need to work on. You can still meditate and prioritize self-care and see a therapist and challenge your thoughts and everything else recovery comprises, because the felt depression is only one element of your present experience.
When you are the depression, it’s like we’re no longer putting an angry child in timeout but instead putting anger itself in timeout. Doesn’t strike you as a sound solution, does it?
The reality is that being a “depressed person” is hopeless, intense, and damning, while “feeling depressed” is a momentary, manageable state. And it is this amplified emotionality that often catapults us right back into the mood or trigger that sets it all off again. And, just like that, the cycle continues!
What does this mean for you?
It’s important to mention that at every step of the cycle, we are reinforcing the bingeing behavior. These steps are not distinct, separate pieces of the puzzle. As it stands, all of these steps can technically “lead to bingeing.” But in understanding them all, we can craft a better picture of what’s going on and finally be able to see the forest for the trees.
Behavior chain analysis takes the behavior, whatever disordered behavior that might be, and then traces it back to see where the voluntary choice was. For example, maybe you’ve been trying to defeat your binge-eating habit for a while now by only carrying a small amount of cash with you when you go to work. You might have reasoned that, since we are less likely to make erratic spending decisions with cash than with credit or debit, this would keep you from doing your ritualistic post-work trip to the convenience store to stock up on your binge foods.
That actually isn’t a bad strategy at all, and it could very likely be the thing you’ve needed to start rerouting the binge-eating behavior. But that is only if this stage is the weak link for you. Maybe instead you find that, even with this limited cash, you enter into zombie mode after a long day of work and drive straight to the store and buy what little food you can (and maybe even steal food, something not uncommon with eating disorders). Or you go straight home to pick up your wallet and head back out. Or you give up on this valiant effort only a couple days in. This isn’t because you’re weak or lacking in willpower… it’s almost certainly because you are focusing on the wrong step in the cycle.
If you were to trace your behaviors back further, maybe you find that it was actually the amplified emotionality that you had the most control over. This could mean your next action step needs to be addressing the amplification of emotions you feel. Whether you manage this with meditation, in-the-moment breathing techniques, or a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) emotion regulation skill, what’s important is that you maintain an emphasis on this step in the cycle. If this is where your voluntary choice came into play, then this is the most actionable and important part of the cycle for you personally to address.
My point is that at every stage in this cycle, we have distinct events occurring that can be targeted and rerouted. If you’re looking at this and wondering “What on this cycle do I need to change?”… It’s the weak link you need to work on. As such, your job is to find it.
Sometimes, though this is more advanced, the weak link is actually a step outside of this cycle, such as a psychiatric comorbidity that is powering one of the steps in the cycle.
Anyway, here’s your quick little homework assignment…
Looking at this chain, try to identify where along this cycle you are the most present or aware and the most able to fix things. Is it during the mood/trigger stage, where you feel you can start working on basic health habits (and while we’re at it, here are 51 healthy habits you can start building today) to ensure more stable and predictable moods? Is it during the unproductive responses stage, where you’re thinking up ways you can respond to the binge productively, so as not to let the cycle further itself any longer?
Really think about this, because it could just be the most crucial step in your own recovery process.