This follows on from How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits, so I would recommend starting there.
Before we jump into how to ignore the urge to binge, here’s a quick recap of the Habitual Voice Recognition Technique (HVRT).
What is the Habitual Voice?
Your Habitual Voice (HV) is any thinking, feeling, or urges that encourage habitual behaviours. In relation to bingeing, your HV is any urge to binge as well as any thoughts or feelings related to bingeing. In the context of this article I’lll refer to more specifically as the Binge Voice (BV) as most people find this easier to relate to. Your Binge Voice includes:
- Having the urge to binge
- Having the urge to restrict after a binge
- Thinking about your next opportunity to binge
- Thinking about how many calories you ate in your last binge
- Feeling ashamed of your binge eating
- Feeling like binge eating is out of your control
- Feeling scared of eating certain foods incase it leads to a binge
I want to highlight, the Binge Voice (BV) is NOT the binge episode itself. It is the URGE to binge.
For example, say you had the thought “I need to eat the tub of ice-cream in the freezer”. This thought, and the urge to eat the ice-cream, is your BV – not the actual eating of the ice-cream itself. This is pretty much the whole post in a nutshell: the urge to binge is separate from the action of bingeing. And, just because you have the urge to binge, does not mean you have to act on it (although this is so much easier said than done). It’s a bit like scratching an itch where the urge to binge is like the urge to scratch, and the scratching itself is like the binge episode. Just because you have the urge to scratch an itch, doesn’t mean you actually have to scratch it. And when you don’t scratch it, you’ll find the itch passes all on it’s own.
It’s also important to recognise that your Binge Voice can sound pretty rational at times (because, although it comes from the lower brain, it is interpreted through the language and logic of the higher brain – see Is Your Eating Disorder a Habit? for a deeper understanding of the brain).
So, although you know deep down that bingeing on ice cream is not going to give you the health, happiness, and freedom you want,, your Binge Voice might justify bingeing ‘because you’ve had a stressful day’ or as a ‘treat’ or ‘as one last binge’. As rational, powerful and comforting as these messages might sound, these messages are your BV – habitual, meaningless, powerless, and based on fear.
What is the Binge Voice Recognition Technique?
The Binge Voice Recognition Technique (BVRT) involves six steps:
- Identify your true self – the real you that has a deep desire for health, happiness and freedom.
- Identify your Binge Voice (BV) – any thought feeling or urge that encourages you to binge (you will probably find that your BV sends out similar messages – thoughts, feelings, urges, again and again). It is helpful to write these messages down so you can identify them in the moment when they occur.
- Separate your true self from your BV.
- Dismiss your BV – don’t react to it (engage with it emotionally) or react to it (by bingeing or by restricting after a binge).
- Take actions that will strengthen your true self and get excited about life – nourish yourself, meditate, spend time in nature, do things that make you happy.
As you read these steps you might be thinking… “My urges to binge are so overpowering, how am I going to identify every single urge to binge and dismiss them for the rest of my life – I think it’ll be easier to keep bingeing.”
If you are thinking how much work it’ll be to dismiss your urges, try to remember that the BVRT is a process. It is how you begin your recovery. It is how you break old habits. It is how you create a new normal. Yes, it will take a lot of work to start with. And it might even feel like you’re slipping backwards because you will be hyper-aware of everything your Binge Voice is saying to you (before the messages might have been so automatic that you didn’t even notice them). But, with practice, the BV will fizzle. Every time you dismiss your BV and ride out the urge to binge even though your BV is screaming at you to eat all the crisps and cookies in the cupboard, the pathways in your lower brain that send out these urges will weaken. And as the pathways in your lower brain weaken, so will the urges to binge. Until they fizzle out altogether (this is known as self-directed neuroplasticity).
For some people, this constant dismissal of the Binge Voice takes weeks. For other’s it takes months. And even then, at some point, years in the future, the lower brain may send out a random urge to binge. But, because by then you know how to identify your BV and dismiss it, it won’t be an issue. You’ll simply acknowledge its existence, allow it to pass without doing anything, and get on with your life.
To help you relate to this a bit more, here is one of my clients’ experiences using the BVRT.
Sam* came to me aged 35 after struggling with binge eating in for the last eight months. She said she had occasionally binged in her teens and early twenties but it was only in the last eight months her binges had been happening more and more frequently. First they were random, then every weekend, and now they were happening almost daily. I asked her if she knew what had started this cycle and if there was any emotional upheaval in her life. She said she couldn’t understand it because, overall, she loved her life.
And then she told me that she’d started a low calorie diet about a year ago and, every time she binged, she would restrict the next day to try and compensate.
Before we even got to the BVRT I explained to Sam that bingeing is a natural physiological response to perceived starvation or deprivation (i.e. undereating in terms of calories or feeling physically hungry and ignoring it) and that, if she wanted to stop binge eating, she had to stop dieting and begin nourishing herself with regular meals regardless of whether she had binged or wanted to lose weight. Any desire to lose weight had to be put on the back burner until she had a healthier relationship with food, her body, and herself.
As she began eating adequately, we started using the BVRT so she could identify and dismiss her urges.
Step 1: Identify your true self
I asked Sam what she wanted deep down, underneath all the fears about gaining weight and desire to eat perfectly.
She said she wanted to be at peace with food, her body, and herself. She said she wanted to be able to trust her appetite and know that she could eat what she wanted until she was full without it leading to a binge. She said she wanted to be happy and healthy.
So her TRUE SELF wanted to health, happiness and peace.
Step 2: Identify your Binge Voice (BV)
Over the period of a few weeks, I asked Sam to listen to the messages she had around eating and her body that encouraged her binge eating – her Binge Voice. Sometimes it can take a little while to identify your BV because the messages are so engrained and automatic that it feels like they are part of you.
She identified the messages below as coming from her BV (if you are reading this because someone you know is going through binge eating issues, then this will give you an idea of how worthless bingeing makes you feel):
- ‘Eat. Eat. Eat.’
- ‘Food. Food. Food’
- ‘I’ll be alone tonight so I can eat whatever I want’
- ‘I can eat whatever I want to tonight and then tomorrow I’ll get back on my diet’
- ‘I might as well eat all the cookies now so they’re gone’
- ‘Eating is my only comfort’
- ‘I need to eat’
- ‘I’ve already eaten loads so I might as well just eat more’
- ‘Eating is the only way I can make the feeling go away’
- ‘I’ll eat so I become so big and unattractive then I can’t get hurt by anyone again’
- ‘I’ll have one last binge tonight and then I’ll stop tomorrow’
- ‘I have nothing to do this evening so I might as well binge’
- ‘I’m out tomorrow evening and the evening after so if I don’t binge tonight then I won’t be able to until Friday’
- ‘One last time’
- ‘I’m fat anyway, I might as well binge’
- Like food is my only friend
- Comfort from binge eating
- Relief from boredom/stress/anxiety
- Angry and anxious if something stops me from being able to binge
- Like I have no control over bingeing
- Emotional hunger
- Out of control
- to eat the three packets of cookies in the cupboard
- to drive to the nearest fast food restaurant and eat what I order in secret
- to numb feeling sad with food
- to eat the entire tub of ice-cream
- to go to the bakery on the way home and get food to binge on
- to eat to procrastinate from doing work
- to fill time with food while I’m waiting to live
- to starve the day after a binge
- to over-exercise the day after a binge
- to eat so I don’t feel so unworthy
I also asked her in what way binge eating still served her (because sometimes, as well as being a habit, binge eating serves a purpose in life and we need to figure out healthier ways to fill that purpose).
- Numbing out
- Distraction from work/stress/emotions
- Because it feels safe
- It makes me feel better while I’m doing it
Step 3: Separate your true self from your Binge Voice
Sam often used to tell me, “My urges to binge feel so overpowering”.
What she didn’t realise by saying this was that her urges were separate from her – they felt like they were overpowering her. Yes, the urges to binge were coming FROM a part of her (her BV housed neurologically in her lower brain) but they weren’t actually her. I asked Sam these questions:
‘”If you are finding the urges so overpowering, then who is it that these thoughts are overpowering? If you are having these urges, and you can observe and identify them as overpowering, then who is it observing your these urges?”
This helped Sam to see that she was not her urges. She was who was witnessing them.
Separating your true self from the urge to binge coming from your BV is something that takes practice. It all comes from an understanding of the two minds. This is an Eastern concept that is being used more and more in Western psychological approaches because of emerging neuroscientific research (see Is Your Eating Disorder a Habit for more explanation on a neurological approach to the two brains) where you have:
- The Thinking Mind: the lower brain, your Binge Voice
- The Observing Mind: the higher brain, your true self
We have very little control over the Thinking Mind (our BV) – it sends out thoughts and emotions and urges all the time. And these things are out of our control, they will continuously pop up into your awareness and you cannot stop them. You cannot stop thinking. And you cannot stop feeling.
What we do have control over is the Observing Mind (our true self). So, for example, when Sam had the urge to ‘eat the three packet of cookies in the cupboard’ (arising from her Thinking Mind), it is not the urge itself that was causing her suffering, it is the way she was getting sucked into it, giving it meaning and then acting on it. Before Sam understood the difference between her two minds, she would get dragged along by all the urges to binge arising from her Thinking Mind (her BV) and end up bingeing and feeling guilty about it. But when she began to use the Observing Mind she acknowledged that, even though she had the urge to binge, she didn’t need to act on it.
Sam began to understand that it wasn’t about trying to stop the urge to binge. It was about simply sitting with the urges without giving them any meaning until they passed (which she found is usually after 20-30 minutes). It was about accepting that these urges would pop up and consciously choosing to dismiss them and instead act in a way that would bring her closer to her goals of health, happiness and peace. It was about no longer letting her Binge Voice control her. It was about realising that although she had no control over the urges to binge, she did have a choice over how to respond to them.
Below are three techniques that can help you separate your Binge Voice from your true self.
1. Rephrase your HV
Language is powerful. A simple way of finding separation between Binge Voice and true self is by rephrasing the messages your BV send out.
So, for Sam, she could rephrase the message from her BV which screams at her to ‘EAT THE TUB OF ICE-CREAM as ‘I have the urge to eat the entire tub of ice-cream’– by doing this Sam began to recognise that although she HAD the URGE to eat the ice-cream, it didn’t mean she actually had to eat the ice-cream.
Let’s try another example…
By Sam acknowledging that she was ‘FEELING like I have no control over bingeing, instead of ‘HAVING no control over bingeing’, she was able to see that just because she FELT like she had no control didn’t mean she actually had no control (because she did).
Likewise with her thoughts…
When Sam rephrased the message from her BV which told her ‘Eating is my only comfort’ to ‘I have the thought that eating is my only comfort’, she realised that just because she HAD the THOUGHT that eating was her only comfort, didn’t mean it was.
By rephrasing her thoughts, feelings and emotions around bingeing, Sam was able separate them from her behaviour. She was no longer a slave to her Binge Voice.
2. Meditate on it
Meditation was a total game-changer for me when it came to ignoring my anorexic thoughts and urges. It gave me the space, stillness and practice I needed to learn how to separate my Habitual Voice (he Anorexic Voice in my case) from my true self. I mainly used these meditation techniques:
(Just click the names of the meditations above and there’s a how-to guide for each one).
To begin with I found it tough. I found it difficult to identify my Anorexic Voice and I often got sucked into my anorexic thoughts, feelings and urges. If I had the thought, ‘I can’t recover because I’ve had anorexia for too long’, I would accept it at face value and carry on with my anorexic behaviours. But with practice, instead of believing these thoughts, I was able to acknowledge them:
‘I feel scared that I can’t recover because I’ve had anorexia for too long’
‘I have the thought that I can’t recover because I’ve had anorexia for too long’
And, once I was able to acknowledge them, I could separate myself from them and then dismiss them and get on with my life.
Sam had a similar experience. By visualising the messages from her Binge Voice as passing clouds and herself as the sky (using the Just a Passing Cloud Meditation), she discovered that the urges to binge would always pass without her having to do anything at all. Yes, it might be uncomfortable to sit with the anxiety of not bingeing, but it was nowhere near as uncomfortable as the guilt and shame and feeling physically sick after a binge.
For more a deeper understanding see, Meditation and Eating Disorder Recovery .
3. Practice the Pause
I explore this in more detail in my book, Fear-Free Food, but, in summary, practicing the pause is exactly as it sounds. When you have the urge to binge or think recovery is impossible, simply PAUSE. Stop. Take a few deep breaths. And remember who YOU are. When you are in a rush or feeling stressed, it’s easy to slip back into your habitual way of thinking and become slave to your Binge Voice. Pausing at times like this helps you remember that YOU are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are not your habits. You have a choice about how you respond to your BV. You have a choice about how to live your life.
Step 4: Dismiss your Binge Voice (BV)
Dismissing your Binge Voice involves two things:
1. Not reacting to your BV by giving it any meaning or getting caught up in the emotions. For example, when Sam started feeling a binge urge arising she would usually panic about it becoming overpowering and what would happen next. By not getting caught up the anxiety, she was able to create space between the urge and her true self.
2. Not acting on it by not doing what your BV is telling you to do. For example, when Sam’s BV told her to eat all the cookies to make her feel better, she wouldn’t eat all the cookies.
There are two main ways to help you dismiss your Binge Voice:
1. Stop and meditate. Take a break from whatever you are doing, sit down and make space to consciously separate your true self from your Binge Voice using one of the meditation techniques above.
2. Carry on with whatever you are doing. Acknowledge your BV and consciously choose to continue with your life. This way you don’t allow any urges to binge get in the way of living a meaningful life.
An alternative to dismissing your Binge Voice is to distract yourself from it. I wouldn’t recommend doing this all the time as you need to be able to sit with the urges to binge and related thoughts and feelings without acting on them in order for them to fizzle out BUT dismissing your BV all the time is pretty exhausting (you are literally rewiring your brain). So, sometimes you need to make life easier by distracting yourself from your BV. If this is the case, then distract yourself with something that nourishes you and makes you happy (see Step 5).
Step 5: Strengthen your true self and get EXCITED!!
Stopping the urge to binge is a lot easier when you are taking care of yourself. There are four parts to this step:
If self-love and self-care is a struggle for you then a good place to start is with The Promise . You can use The Promises I have developed with my clients or you can create one of your own.
Once you make the promise to look after yourself for the rest of yourself, something amazing happens: you start looking after yourself. And, because your Binge Voice is at odds with your promise, it’s easier to dismiss. And because you dismiss it more, your BV begins to fade until it is just a whisper. Just a memory. Part of your past. Part of your story.
You will notice that your urges to binge are stronger and your BV is harder to dismiss if you are feeling stressed or anxious or in a rush. This is because stress hormones cause your brain to shift back into habit mode. So, by reducing the stress in your life and calming your mind, you will find that you have more mental space to separate from your BV (step 3) and dismiss it (step 4).
For example, Sam found that when she was stressed about money, her urges to binge would get stronger. By asking her Dad for help with budgeting, she decreased her stress levels and had the head space to identify her urge to binge, and instead of acting on them, she could dismiss it.
One reason urges to binge can feel overpowering is because you are exhausted. When you are deprived of sleep, rest and nourishment, your brain shifts to survival mode in the lower brain making it harder to dismiss the BV.
Self-care and stress reduction techniques include:
- Reading a book
- Meeting a friend for a chat
- Having a bath
- Cooking yourself a nourishing meal
- Spending time in nature
- Getting a massage
- Going to a gentle yoga class
- Getting an early night
- Spending time with people you love
- Asking for help at work and with chores
- Day dreaming (my favourite!)
You want your approach to nutrition to be pretty neutral. For example, eating a slice of cheesecake should have no more emotional meaning attached to it than eating an avocado. BUT eating is an emotional experience. Nourishing yourself feels incredible. Food is something you can get excited about. That’s why Fear-Free Recipes are so important to Fear-Free Eating. Because food is fun. And cooking is a great way of exploring flavours, experimenting with ingredients, figuring out what you do and don’t like and giving yourself the opportunity to create fun, enjoyable experiences around food instead of seeing it as a source of anxiety, guilt and shame.
Fear-Free Recipes are all about falling back in love with food, falling back in love with nourishing yourself, and falling back in love with life.
These are some of my favourites: