Progression from Binge Eating to Weight Loss: Emotions

Feb 10, 2020

This is a transcript of an episode of the Breaking Up With Binge Eating Podcast. If you'd prefer to listen, you can do that right here, or just keep reading.

 

“I’m seriously confused”, wrote Christine.

“It’s my first week in your Ceasefire course for binge eating, and I’m studying everything carefully! It advises eating 5 or 6 times a day, but then in the weight loss course it says eating 3 or 4 times is best for weight loss. I want to do that course in the future, and I know I need to stop binge eating first. But here’s my concern: If I need to eat 5 or 6 times a day to avoid a binge, won’t I just start binge eating again if I drop to 3 or 4 meals? How will I ever lose weight?”

Christine’s question is so common that I have been dying to address it in an episode. In short, the answer is that eating 5 or 6 times a day is the first stage in a progression, it’s the meal pattern that works best WHILE you are building up emotional skills, but once you have those skills, you can change the meal frequency and not backslide into bingeing. That’s why down the road, you’ll be able to move towards 3 or 4 meals even if right now that switch would send you right into a binge.

When I was a kid I did gymnastics. And when you’re learning a new trick like a back handspring, you first do it with a spotter on a big thick cushy mat. You keep the mat there while you practice and practice and practice. Then you can move to a medium mat, and you practice and practice and practice. Your balance and spatial awareness get better, your jump gets stronger, your arms get used to catching your bodyweight so you don’t fall on your head, but you keep using the mat for weeks. Eventually, you do it without the mat, on the floor. Your goal has always been to do it on the floor, but you can’t do it there the first day.

Think of the recommended eating plan of 5-6 times a day as the cushy mat we use while we are learning new emotional and behavioural skills and breaking the habit of binge eating. I know you want to be doing back handsprings on the floor, just like everyone wants to be losing weight RIGHT NOW.  Eventually you’ll step down to a thinner mat and move to the floor. But don’t hurry it. Creating a calorie deficit is the very last step in the process, one you don’t want to try until you’ve got the supports in place to keep you from falling on your head. Today I’ll explain more about some of the steps that occur so you know exactly what to strengthen before you move to the floor.

Some of the people listening to this podcast aren’t interested in weight loss. They are focused on forming a healthy, normal relationship with food and putting disordered eating behind them. However, most people who contact us at Nutrition Loft want to lose weight more than anything!

If you’ve been tuning into our podcast for a while, you’ve heard us emphasize many times that stopping binge eating has to come FIRST, and weight loss can come LATER. In the same way you have to take your shoes off before your pants. And I get that you’re probably impatient. Binge eating and emotional eating tend to produce weight gain. Being larger can mean feeling uncomfortable in your clothes, and not like your best self. So no wonder people are in a hurry to see some changes on the outside of their body. I want you to get there too.

In this episode, I’m going to talk about some of the behavioural transitions that occur as a client goes through recovery. I’m not going to label any phases like “early recovery, middle recovery, and late recovery, and describe what happens in each phase, because that would be sort of misleading.

You might in the very first stages with one area of your eating behaviours, and further along in some other behaviours. And you might make rapid progress with, for example, learning to manage your portion sizes, but need more time to say, get accustomed to handling your emotions without food. This is not one skill, it’s lots of skills! You could say that recovering from disordered eating and moving into weight loss is like training for a decathlon.

Today I’ll talk about 1 of the progressions that people move through as they break up with binge eating: today will be all about emotions. You can also hear about our progressions for learning to use hunger and stopping at satisfied

The earliest stage of this progression is improving emotional awareness. Someone who doesn't yet have this skill developed might not be able to tell when they are experiencing a strong emotion. Sometimes they feel blank, or they feel like they get urges to eat, drink, shop, yell or cry but are completely surprised by them because they had no sensation of the emotion rising! In this stage, the skill we teach our clients is emotional awareness. Do practice this, you can check on your emotions on a regular basis, just as you would check the time, or check the weather forecast. You ask yourself, how am I feeling? And use some words to describe your emotional state. Many clients do this in a journal, because it forces them to write down something!

The next skill in this progression is expressing those emotions.  Basically we’re talking about reversing any habits you may have had of suppressing your feelings. Suppressing emotions or showing no outward response, is something many people with disordered eating and emotional eating have LOTS of practice with. And it’s just so cool to see how as emotional expression goes up, emotional eating and binge eating go DOWN.  

A 2018 research paper reported the findings from 4 studies which looked at what happens between people in close and romantic relationships when they suppressed or expressed their emotions on a regular basis. Among their findings:

 “when individuals were more emotionally expressive during daily interactions, they experienced interpersonal benefits such as greater acceptance from others, greater relatedness and relationship satisfaction, and less distancing by others. Greater emotional expression in daily life also predicted increases in self-esteem and relationship satisfaction across time.”

Reading those outcomes, and you can probably see how when people feel accepted by others, have close and satisfying relationships, and high self-esteem, they don’t feel as much of a need to binge eat or turn to the pantry for comfort. So, let’s harness the power of emotional expression, right? 

I define healthy expression as effective communication, to the right person, at the right time. In short, to practice emotional expression you have to be truthful (you can’t say you’re feeling great when you’re actually miserable.) You also want to use specific words, like eager, disappointed, energetic or serene. Good, bad, fine and stressed are four words which are too general, so try to get a bit more detailed. Choosing the right time to express yourself and the right audience for your expression will help you feel safe opening up and ensure a positive outcome. People with whom you have friendly or loving relationships are excellent candidates, and most of the time is perfectly suitable for sharing what’s on your mind. You probably just want to make sure to avoid the wrong time, such as when they are running out the door, seated next to you in a funeral service, or just broke their arm and are utterly miserable.

So, what do you say? If you’re telling someone about your day, and you usually only include facts about what happened, you can add in how you felt about the events.

So if you usually say “I had that meeting with my boss, he’s cool with me taking Christmas week off, and then I hit the gym on the way home and did a leg workout. Oh and traffic was bad near the construction on 10th street.”

You could practice your expression skills more but saying, “I had that meeting with my boss, he’s cool with me taking Christmas week off, what is such a relief! I realize I was pretty unnerved waiting to hear back from him. My leg workout was good, it gave me a mood boost after skipping last week. And the construction on 10th street is causing a lot of traffic, I was so frustrated today because I just wanted to get home and relax!”

Want a simpler way to practice? I bet at least one person a day will ask you “how are you?” I challenge you to answer truthfully, without using the four words I mentioned above, good, bad, fine or stressed. You might say, “I’m optimistic!” “I’m feeling happy today!” “Pretty tired, but grateful for this cup of coffee”, or “I’m glad I get to see you, it’s been a while.”

Okay, the next step after identifying emotions and getting better at expressing them, is being able to moderate them. This is the powerful part, because it’s allows us to have an influence on how we feel. It’s like having a volume knob so you can DIAL down your feelings when they get really intense - and if you think having that dial handy would help you avoid binges or emotional overeating, I agree, that’s exactly how it works. When you can feel better without binge eating, most people wouldn’t choose binge eating, given the high costs of using it to feel better. They’d rather just turn the dial and not go through feeling sick, bloated, heavy or ashamed.

I have 3 key methods I teach my clients to help turn down the dial on uncomfortable emotions. In the book I’m writing right now (It’s called Give Yourself More, and it comes out in  Summer 2020) we go through all of them step by step. But that book is about 80,000 words, and that’s way too long for a podcast, so I’m going to do a big sweeping overview. Just know that there is a ton more to learn on these subjects if you are interested.

Tool #1 to dial down an uncomfortable feeling: Reappraisal

The quick and dirty way I can describe reappraisal is you think of something in a new way and it changes how you feel about it. Sometimes the way we think about something makes it SUPER upsetting. For example: If you see someone stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire you might think,
“Oh no! That’s terrible, they must be sad and upset, they might have missed the most important meeting of their life! Or what if they had a plane to catch!” Pretty upsetting.

If you wanted to reappraise the situation, to be less upset by it, you might think “I’m glad they are sitting in the car where it’s safe and not standing on the roadside, and they’re talking on their cell phone, probably calling roadside assistance or friend to help them out if they need.” Or you might think “Argh flat tires are annoying, but luckily it’s dry and sunny so they don’t have to change it in the pouring rain.”
Or even “maybe just robbed a bank or committed a murder and then got a flat tire - now they won’t get away form the cops”.

To practice reappraising, you’d want to want to push yourself to see how things aren’t that bad, might not be as severe as they seem, could be worse, or can be handled. You might also focus on how things will improve in time. It’s also helpful to note how an individual has support to help to deal with a situation, or possesses personal resources to cope with it. Especially if the person in trouble is you. You can remind yourself “I am tough, have great problem solving skills and have handled difficult crap before!” 

Tool #2 to dial down an uncomfortable feeling: Replacement

What we’re talking about replacing here are automatic negative thoughts, and self-limiting beliefs. Automatic negative thoughts are just what you’d guess from the name.
Say, for example, you catch someone looking at you from across a restaurant. If immediately you think, “he’s looking at my wrinkles and thinking how ugly I am” That’s a pretty negative assumption and one you came to without any evidence. Another automatic negative thought example would be if you think things like “I just know I’ll screw this up” before you go into an interview. Thinking like that on a regular basis can contribute to depression and anxiety, and make you suffer from worse moods on a regular basis. So, do dial back an uncomfortable feeling you can learn to replace those thoughts with more accurate, fair ones. In the case of the stranger looking at you, you might think instead, “hm, maybe he thinks I’m attractive” or “maybe I look like someone he knows.” You might replace the thought “I just know I’ll screw this up” with, “all I can do is try and hope for the best.” 

You can replace a negative or unhelpful thought on the spot throughout the day, and eventually your style of thinking changes so your mind just doesn’t come up with those automatic negative ones as much. 

Replacement can also be used with beliefs. You may have some beliefs that are holding you back, like “I’m bad at math”, “people can’t be trusted”, and “if you aren’t married by 35 you’re doomed to become a crazy cat lady”. Sometimes these beliefs are things we learned from our parents. Let’s say you often heard your parents say “Asking for help is what lazy people do” or “Anyone who gets cosmetic surgery is superficial”. You might adopt these beliefs when you’re young, but realize at some point in your life that they aren’t helping you. Let’s say you really need assistance with getting your child to sleep - but you don’t want to hire a sleep coach because that old belief has you worried that if you do, you’ll be a lazy person because you asked for help. Or let’s say one of your breasts was removed due to cancer surgery - does it make you a superficial person to want to explore a reconstruction?

I’m definitely not going to tell you what to believe - but what I’m getting at with replacement is that sometimes we can recognize, (often with the help of a coach) that there’s a self-limiting belief we might want to replace with an updated one. It can make us a whole lot happier to replace perfectionist beliefs with kind, flexible ones. When it comes to food and eating, some of the beliefs I commonly see holding people back are that they are powerless around certain foods, that they can’t stop themselves, and that they can’t change. Replacing these can sure make the journey a whole lot easier, and reduce feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Tool #3 to dial down an uncomfortable feeling: Acceptance

How does accepting something help you feel better emotionally? It sounds like some psychological brain teaser. But it’s really effective. Don’t believe me? Imagine that the next time it rains, you will try to stop the rain. You can shout at the sky, light fires, do dances or invent rituals to drive the rain away. Because you hate rain. You worry if you don’t do all this, the rain will never stop. You won’t get any work done, or have any time for fun because you’ll spend all your time and energy focused on getting rid of the rain. This sort of constant fight is the opposite of acceptance.

Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the rain, it just means you make peace with the fact that it is raining, and you put on a raincoat and go about your day anyway. You go do your job, maybe you see a movie after work, have dinner with your family. You don’t spend all time hating the rain and trying in vain to force it to go away. And you notice the rain a lot less when you are busy and engaged with life and other people.

Accepting our feelings sets us free from the task of engaging with constant war with them. If you’ve ever tried to stop being depressed or stop being anxious, or stop being shy, or stop being nervous, in some ways it’s like shouting at the sky because you hate the rain. You can’t just make it go away instantly. It’s going to move on in it’s own time. Part of acceptance is recognizing that emotions do move on, without us doing anything, they are like the weather, they just keep changing. The best thing we can do is keep going about our lives, even if some uncomfortable emotions are along for the ride. You can’t make it stop raining, but you can feel a lot less distressed by it, which is the goal. We can still hang out with friends, go to work, be good parents, and get our workout in, whether we’re feeling anxious, shy, or sad. In fact, going about activities that we value often helps us feel better sooner than stopping them. And if you’ve tried to get rid of a feeling or smother it by eating, you can probably see how learning acceptance is a key step to being able to leave binge eating and emotional eating aside.

To recap, there’s a progression of emotional skills that create a path from a starting place of binge eating and emotional eating through recovery, and then continue to gradual weight loss.

You have to take one step at a time. The first step is noticing your emotions and being able to identify them, and tell them apart. The second step is being able to express your feelings rather than suppress them. And lastly, learning tools to be able to dial down the intensity of your own emotions frees you up to not need to utilize food to help suppress and numb you.

There was a lot in this article! Take things one step at a time, and allow yourself time. These are important transformations, and you don't need to rush yourself. If you need a hand, you can always drop me a line : [email protected].  Tell me what's up and I'm sure we can find a solution together.

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