What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder characterized by the consumption of unusually large amounts of food. Many people who binge eat feel a lack of control over their eating and may feel extremely depressed and guilty after a binge eating episode. These individuals may vary in their weights, spanning from “normal” weight to obese. While there is no specific cause for binge eating, I have found in my work with these patients that binge eating is oftentimes linked to a long history of relationship dissatisfaction, typically starting with important caregivers early in life. In other words, binge eating may be caused by depression or anxiety, which is usually the result of painful childhood experiences or family problems. Individuals who turn to food for comfort, rather than for energy or to satiate genuine feelings of hunger, may not be conscious that they do so in an attempt to cope with these painful feelings.
What are the Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder?
There are many symptoms of binge eating disorder, but they often include:
- eating when depressed, sad, or bored,
- eating large amounts of food when not hungry,
- eating alone during binge episodes,
- feeling disgusted, guilty, or depressed after a binge episode,
- eating until physically uncomfortable,
- and a focus on low nutritional foods.
What Causes Binge Eating?
Understood from a psychodynamic perspective, binge eating may be a symptom of underlying emotional conflicts and unresolved emotional issues. Individuals who struggle with binge eating tend to use food to help themselves out of difficult moments, but this ultimately leads to self-destructive behavior. Food is used as an “emotional tranquilizer” and binge eating is to cope instead of think about and reflect upon a painful feeling. After a binge episode, they may punish themselves with cruel and harsh judgments, despite the initial goal of managing their emotions.
Binge eating often is an attempt to supply something absent internally, such as missing a comforting figure (typically a caregiver) or the ability to tolerate and manage painful feelings. I find that those who compulsively binge eat do not necessarily have an eating problem, a weight problem, or a dieting problem; rather, they have a "calming" problem. In other words, they may be unable to sit with their feelings or calm themselves down, leading to a reliance on food as a coping mechanism.
How Do I Treat Binge Eating in My Practice?
Binge eating may represent a conscious––or unconscious––attempt to regulate emotions and manage feelings of stress, depression, loss, boredom, or anxiety. I employ a psychodynamic approach to therapy, which aims to explore these underlying emotional struggles, identify and label them, and help the individual develop healthier coping strategies to manage their emotions.
One goal of treatment is to help the individual develop a capacity to self-soothe, contain, and metabolize powerful, yet unrecognized, painful feelings. Binge eating may be seen as a manifestation of unresolved emotional problems stemming from both recent and past experiences of loss, trauma, or neglect. Ultimately, the goal of treatment is to get to the point where the individual can sit with their feelings and think about them, rather than using food to cope or “eat away” their emotions. As a patient once said to me, “brownies-and-ice-cream is the wrong way to treat an uncomfortable feeling."
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder characterized by consuming unusually large amounts of food in one sitting and feeling a lack of control over one’s eating. Those who binge eat often feel depressed and guilty after an episode. Other symptoms can be behavioral and emotional, including eating when depressed, sad, or bored, eating until physically uncomfortable, and focusing on “comfort” foods such as low nutritional foods. I have found that binge eating is often linked to unresolved emotional issues, potentially stemming from painful childhood experiences or family problems. Psychodynamic therapy can help identify and explore underlying emotional struggles, develop healthier coping strategies and, ultimately, reduce one’s reliance on food to manage emotions.