This week March 1-7th 2021, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and this year the focus is on Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

Binge eating disorder is a condition that causes sufferers to develop an uncontrollable and compulsive relationship with food. It’s characterised by eating a lot of food in a short time, and not being able to stop when full. The eating is often done in secret and is frequently followed by feelings of shame and guilt. To control the effects of binge eating a sufferer may well begin over-exercising and restricting food at other times. But what is behind the behaviour? The reasons are of course varied, but in this article we explore one of the main reasons that people binge eat, in our experience, and that is down to the emotion that’s driving it. 



Binge eating is a response to a feeling 


When you start to binge eat, there is a feeling that drives you towards that behaviour. That feeling links to an emotional need. Identifying and unlinking that need from the food is the key to breaking the cycle of the eating disorder. It’s worth noting here that there may well be more than one pattern linked to the binge eating. 

The feeling of eating a particular food, and sometimes the buying of it too, is linked in the brain with getting a specific need met. It may have stored away patterns from past events that threatened that particular need. Along with the pattern, it’s likely to have stored an attached behaviour that was perceived as the solution at the time. Therefore whenever the brain feels that particular need is threatened it triggers the behaviour.

The brain stores such patterns so it can recognise future dangerous situations and have a strategy in place to help. Unfortunately, sometimes these pattern matches and strategies are unhelpful. After all, a strategy that was put in place when you were 16 may not be appropriate now. 



What are the basic emotional needs? 


There are 9 basic emotional needs: 

  • A sense of security, in major areas of your life – home, relationship, work and environment
  • Feeling your give other people enough attention 
  • Feeling that you receive enough attention
  • Having a sense of control of your life most of the time 
  • A feeling that you are a part of a community 
  • Being able to obtain privacy when you need it
  • Having at least one person in your life who accepts you exactly as you are 
  • Feeling an emotional connection to others 
  • Having a sense of status, acknowledged by friends, family or colleagues 
  • Feeling a sense of achievement in at least one area of your life 
  • A sense of purpose or that your life has meaning and purpose, or being stretched.


The emotional brain will react if something appears to threaten one or more of these needs. Sometimes we are not sure why we are feeling a certain way. We may suddenly feel anxious for seemingly no reason. It is extremely likely that you have had a thought or become aware of something that the brain feels is a threat to one of these needs and the feeling of anxiety is to make you aware of that danger. Often we don’t consciously become aware of the actual reason behind the uncomfortable feeling. And of course eventually it passes and the anxious feeling goes away. 

However, effective though this is, it will also trigger any behaviours that may have become attached to the feeling. 



How do the needs become linked to an eating disorder?


Let’s look at an example. Imagine a teenager is lonely because her parents are always at work and she eats as a distraction from the pain of the loneliness. It doesn’t stop the loneliness but it brings pleasure. The pattern the brain now has is that eating these foods is the answer when feeling lonely. Now as humans we crave pleasure, however short-lived. We also hate being in pain and will do anything to avoid it. 

So, as an adult, you may feel lonely, although you may not consciously recognise it as loneliness. But it is a painful emotional feeling, and it’s natural for your brain to fall back on behaviours that it remembers as being the solution to feeling like that. So your thought is I need to have that food – that will make everything better. Of course in reality it doesn’t stop you feeling lonely, but you do get some pleasure from it, even if it is very short-lived. But it’s a bit like putting a round peg in a square hole. It kind of fills the hole, but it leaves a void. And if the pain is still there you’ll keep looking to the food to give you that pleasurable distraction.

At this point you’re in an emotional headspace and on auto-pilot. The brain keeps trying to complete the pattern it’s laid down, even though eating the food doesn’t change the outcome. 



How can I unlink the feeling from the binge eating?


Try doing this. Sit quietly at the point when you feel that you need to binge eat. Just focus on what you are feeling. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Where am I feeling this? 
  • What’s the feeling like?
  • What am I feeling? 
  • Can I name the emotion? There may be more than one.
  • Do I know why I associate this feeling with food? 
  • Is the food going to meet this need? 

You may find by doing this that you are able to track back to patterns that the brain holds for your binge eating. 



Get some help 


If you’re not able to get in touch with the patterns behind your binge eating, it may be an idea to get some professional help. In our sessions we use different techniques to identify the emotions that lie behind food issues. Emotions are what drive us to action, and it’s these that cause automatic behaviours. Once we identify which experiences are linked we can help the sufferer to separate the experience from the current behaviour. This is often all it takes for the unconscious need to binge or restrict food to fall away. 

I hope you have found this information about binge eating disorders helpful. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.

With very best wishes


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