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Managing binge eating with distress tolerance

By Deborah Etienne Ward

Much of the time binge eating episodes occur following the experience of distress and negative emotions. Binge eating serves as an unhelpful way to manage the feelings that we experience. For a short time after binging some people will feel better. However, in the long term binge eating leads to more negative emotions such as regret and guilt. As a consequence, poor self-esteem is heightened and binging re-occurs as a way to reduce distress again. As you can see binge eating can become a vicious cycle.

How can we prevent ourselves from engaging in a binge when we are feeling down?

Distress is part of life. As avoidance of distress often leads to impulsive behaviour such as binge eating, we need to learn to tolerate our distress.

When we have overwhelming emotions we firstly need to be aware and notice our experience. This helps us to slow down and notice our emotions, thoughts, and urges. This awareness allows one to choose an appropriate behaviour as opposed to acting impulsively in a binge eating episode.

Once we are aware of our emotions, thoughts, and urges we can use a variety of strategies to help with tolerating
distress. Some of these include:

  • Distraction- For example by doing a Sudoku, Walkdrawing, watching a funny TV show, reading a book, playing video
    games, patting your pet, or calling a friend
  • Self Soothe- Use your senses to help soothe yourself. Try to notice as much as you can
    • Sight- Go for a walk and notice all the things that you can see around you such as people walking passed, the rain falling on house roofs, the trees blowing in the wind, a dog chasing a bird etc. If you are indoors, you may choose to look at a photo album or painting and notice as much as you can about these objects.
    • Hearing- Try to notice any noises that you can hear such as the rain, thunder, traffic, music, or people talking. Alternatively, you can play some music and pay attention to the sound of the music.
    • Smell- Light a scented candle, put on some of your favourite fragrant moisturiser or perfume, or go for a walk and smell the smells of nature.
    • Touch- Take a long bath, pat your pet dog or cat, get a massage, cuddle a teddy or blanket
  • Improve the Moment- Some ways that this can be done is by: Imagining yourself in a calm and relaxing place,
    such as on the beach watching the waves; Trying to relax your muscles by tensing and relaxing each muscle group working form your forehead all the way down to your feet, or having a massage or a hot bath; take a break such as by reading a magazine, or going for a walk. Another strategy is to cheerlead yourself by reminding yourself that “I can stand it” and “I am doing the best that I can”.
  • Pro’s and Con’s- Identify the situation which is causing your distress, and your urge to binge eat. Make a list of the pro’s and con’s of engaging in the binge eating episode as well as resisting the binge. Remember to consider both the short-term and long-term pro’s and con’s. It can be useful to do this before an overwhelming urge to binge so that you can carry it with you and have it ready in the event that a binge occurs. Alternatively you can also do it whilst experiencing an urge to binge.

Please note that these skills are only useful for the short-term by assisting in learning to tolerate distress without engaging in binge eating. However, these skills do not solve the core problem and thus it is important to be engaged in active psychological therapy.

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