How to tackle trauma induced binge eating

Sub-Specialised Eating Disorder Counsellor Ruth Micallef lists some of the main symptoms, dangers and solutions to Binge Eating Disorder

With almost 63 per cent of all UK adults now overweight or obese, what are the unspoken truths and triggers of binge eating?

“Weight Loss” is a buzzword that never seems to go away. From New Year’s resolutions, to being “beach body ready”, fad diets and detoxes are drilled into us the whole year-round.

From my clinical experience, I have no doubt the majority of you reading this will have experienced feelings of guilt, shame and disappointment each and every time a diet “fails”. But why is it so hard to stop? Because it’s likely that your binge eating was never at its roots about food. You’re not unmotivated, lazy or greedy; you’re overeating to cope. 

Stressors, adversities and traumas pepper all of our lives but that doesn’t mean that we all receive the support we need when these experiences occur.

I like to think of Binge Eating Disorder as an unhelpful superhero, who we manifest within ourselves when we have no idea how else to cope. It swoops in when times get tough or traumas are triggered, helping us “self-soothe” and “detach” with food and binging. 

But what does binge eating or Binge Eating Disorder look like? Dr Rachel Evans, chartered psychologist notes that:

Binge eating is eating large quantities of food, more than most people in the same circumstances with a sense of loss of control. For example, lots of people would eat past the point of fullness on Christmas Day, but if you’re eating very quickly, in secret or alone, and feeling a sense of guilt and shame because of the foods you ate, then it might be a binge.

More often than not, I find that the clients’ unhelpful superheroes in my clinic have been manifesting for some time. Often, we begin binge eating at a young age, often in our childhood or teenage years. Sometimes it’s an “inherited” superhero, learned coping behaviour from our parents or carers, at other times it has arrived when times have got tough, trauma and adversities slipping into our lives.

"Often, we begin binge eating at a young age, often in our childhood or teenage years"

But I’m sure like most of my own clients you’ll be thinking, I don’t have enough trauma to justify my binging. In fact, this is one of the most frequent comments I hear from new referrals. Here are the top five 5 experiences I see Binge Eating Disorder manifest from;

  • Emotional abuse and neglect; and before you skip to the next one, remember that this can take many forms. Emotionally or physically absent parents, carers, or partners, narcissistic or punitive parenting and relationships. In fact, any situation where your feelings were consistently undermined or unsupported, at home or otherwise. Sexual and physical abuse also have major roles in binge eating manifestation.

  • The push for perfection; another experience many don’t account for is the push towards perfection and how its unattainability makes us want to “detach” and “self soothe” to avoid our inevitable failure. From schools, or boarding schools, universities, sporting institutions or groups, even the pressures of parenting, or career performance, there is such a variety of people and institutions who can force us too far into impossible standards.

  • Bullying; while it can come from a variety of sources, bullying is incredibly detrimental to our mental wellbeing and self-esteem, often truly making us question who we are, and feeling out of control.

  • Intergenerational trauma; binge eating could be an “inherited” coping mode, inadvertently passed down in childhood from parents or carers who had their own unresolved trauma. In these cases, you may have a complex set of feelings and they are all absolutely valid. 

  • Loneliness, isolation, and boredom; still one of the biggest killers in the UK, loneliness is so detrimental to our health and wellbeing. With food remaining one of the most accessible coping modes when we feel alone, it often becomes a vicious cycle if we put on weight, pushing us to isolate ourselves further.

This is of course not an exhaustive list and there are many more reasons why binging might begin. Trauma and adversity creates a unique jigsaw in each of our lives. Finding our “why” can be one of the most powerful starting points for recovery, as it moves us away from a goal of simply “weight loss”, to one with real drive and recovery at its core.

It can be very helpful to process our adversities with a trauma-informed registered professional (for example, someone registered with the BACP or BPS), or speak to your GP about the therapeutic support available in your area.

But how do we make our first steps towards recovery today? Hazel Elliott, Advanced Dietetic Practitioner specialising in Eating Disorders gives us her top tips on how to begin in simple, accessible ways;

  • Firstly, stop focusing on losing weight and instead, shift the focus to improving your relationship with food and your body. Focusing on losing weight maintains the diet mentality.

  • Establish a regular pattern of eating and aim to normalise your relationship with food. This means having breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks in between meals.

  • Avoid skipping meals as this can lead to extreme hunger and overeating is much more likely due to a physical urge. Skipping meals early in the day is commonly seen in people who binge-eat.

  • Plan meals ahead of time as this makes sticking to a regular pattern of eating easier.

  • Don’t deny yourself any food as this causes a sense of deprivation which only makes you crave these foods and often leads to overeating them.

  • Learn to listen to your body, as recognising hunger and fullness is a key skill to learn in managing overeating. You may want to try using a hunger scale when you reach for food. Reconnecting with your hunger and fullness signals can take a bit of practice.

  • Consider keeping a food/mood/thought diary, which can help you identify patterns and triggers for episodes of overeating.

It’s important to note that this unhelpful superhero encourages us to do a number of things to detach and self-soothe, including binge drinking, excessive screen time and doom scrolling, overworking or exercising, even unnecessary shopping. So if you spot any extra coping mechanisms on this list, it’s more than likely this unhelpful superhero is in your life! As Dr Evans comments;

There isn’t just one reason why someone binge eats, often it’s an interplay of factors including physiology and bio-chemistry, innate personality traits, and life experiences, which influence someone’s beliefs and behaviour surrounding food and body image.”

Diet culture trivialises our traumas but binge eating is a significant challenge with long-lasting physical and health implications without support. You deserve compassion, you deserve to truly feel like the best version of yourself, inside and out. Therapy isn’t for “snowflakes”, it’s for us all. A safe space to finally get to the root of some of our most damaging thoughts and behaviours. As my 83-year-old client will tell you, it is never too late to recover.

Learn more about Ruth’s work by visiting eatingdisordersedinburgh.co.uk

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