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Why Tips For Avoiding Binges Never Work
Why practical tips are not helpful for binge eating in the long-term and the importance of schemas in eating disorder therapy
Roughly one year into struggling with an eating disorder, my binges gradually started taking over my life. They not only increased in size, but also started happening more frequently. As the binges gradually consumed my life, I was regularly seeing a therapist and we were trying to take my binges under control.
It was not my binges that needed to be taken under control.
It was my unhealed trauma, ever-changing emotional state, self-destructive behavior, most importantly, my self-confirming dysfunctional schemas.
I remember vividly when I was given my first advice to tackle binges:
''If you feel like binging, leave the kitchen. Wait 5 minutes and if you still feel like eating, go ahead and eat it.''
It just doesn't work that way.
When someone is actively struggling with a disorder that includes binge eating, you cannot target only the behavioral component of the problem, at least not at first. You may ask ''Why? They are struggling with binge eating, so you should work on reducing their binges'', but is that really so?
Let's break it down together: When someone presents with an eating disorder, there are actually four components involved: thoughts, emotions, behavior and schemas.
Schemas are the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us. While all components are constantly in interaction, schemas guide all the other components. They influence the way we process information; meaning they shape our thoughts, emotions and our behavior.
Telling me to wait 5 minutes before eating was targeting my behavior only, without taking my thoughts and emotions behind the binge into consideration. Such advice only reinforced the idea that I should restrict my food intake to heal from binge eating disorder (and that is not how you heal from binge eating disorder).
''When you feel like binging, stop. Ask yourself what you are thinking, how you are feeling.'' was the second advice I received. ''Trace back your thoughts to the triggering event''
This tip really worked because it took my thoughts and emotions into account, which were the precursors to my binge.
I learned to observe myself, my thoughts and my feelings. Learning to identify my triggers was a critical step but still was not enough for change. I could catch my thoughts, trace back the source of my negative emotions. When the binges happened, I knew where they came from and why. I still could not do anything about it.
I felt stuck. ''Maybe there is something inherently wrong with me, maybe this is just who I am'', I thought to myself. I lost faith in the possibility that I could get better. I stopped seeing my therapist.
Months later, I had developed bulimia. I started seeing another therapist.
Things were going well, until they weren't. This time I was hit with mindfulness exercises: ''When you feel a binge coming, pick a color and try to count 10 items in the same color around'' (Not that mindfulness did not work, it was just not enough on its own.)
I cannot speak for everyone, but these tips did not work for me. They were all useless when I felt a binge coming.
It was not possible for me to stop binging or to have a healthy relationship with food as long as I saw myself as not worthy of love and felt defective. My schemas were influencing the way I was thinking, feeling, acting.
Even if the behavioral tips had worked and I had stopped binging, my complaints would never have gone away. There would always be another unhealthy behavior in line, because the main component influencing my approach towards my body and food remained the same.
Postponing a binge, doing mindfulness exercises, etc. do not work because they do not touch upon the main source of the problem: dysfunctional schemas. They are the most important component of eating disorders (and any kind of disorder).
Healing our unhealthy schemas should be the starting point of therapy, then change shall follow.