We republish this article from Janire Momene Lopez, PhD in Psychology at the University of Deusto; Ana Isabel Estevez Gutierrez Professor and Researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Deusto, and Mark Griffiths Director of the International Gaming Research Unit and Professor of Behavioral Addictions at Nottingham Trent University published in The Conversation on March 22, 2022.
“I have negative thoughts all the time and the only thing that helps me feel better is food. As long as I don’t think about anything, the problems disappear and that gives me some breathing room. It is as if during those 15 minutes I felt peace. I realize that I am comforted by having eaten, even if I am not hungry.
Sometimes I try to resist the strong desire to eat after a situation that makes me anxious, sad, or simply uncomfortable, but once I start eating I do it faster and faster, I gobble up the food almost automatically, and at that moment I know that I have lost control Then I feel bad and remorse and feelings of shame and guilt appear. If I’m not hungry, why do I have to binge? It all started when I was 10 years old and my alcoholic parents spent much of their time in the bar across the street from our house. I discovered that food anesthetized my discomfort and since then it has become my biggest secret.
Thus began the real statement of a person who went to a psychology professional in a situation of instability and constant binge eating. Now, these have increased after confinement.
How to identify a binge?
Several signs may indicate that we are sticking Binge. As fundamental characteristics, we would find the excessive amount of food consumed and the feeling of loss of control. This perception can appear before starting to eat; gradually, as the first foods begin to be eaten; or after considering that they have eaten in excess.
In addition, it begins with a strong desire to eat, especially, high-calorie foods. Because of this, getting food takes on extreme importance. The speed of eating during binge eating is faster and gobbles up food without barely chewing it. It is also common to walk or move restlessly while eating compulsively.
At first, the emotions are pleasant, but shortly after the feelings of discomfort. Some people describe binge eating as being in a trance. That is as if they weren’t the ones eating. And some use distractions to avoid thinking about what they are doing.
In addition to this, binge eating is often triggered by negative emotions such as loneliness, sadness, anger, boredom, or anxiety. These are behaviors that are kept secret.
Following the DSM-5, one of the most internationally accepted clinical diagnostic manuals, the main eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
Recently, it has been calculated that affects 15% of the world’s population and its incidence continues to increase. Binge eating can occur in all three eating disorder manifestations. However, in binge eating disorder no subsequent compensatory behaviors as is the case with self-induced vomiting and the use of enemas or laxatives. This can happen in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
In addition, the DMS-5 indicates that binge eating should occur at least once a week for three months to consider the presence of a binge eating disorder.
Traumatic experiences that trigger binge eating
Despite its multifactorial aetiology, it has been proven that traumatic experiences contribute to the development of eating disorders, especially binge eating. A recent study found that 91.5% of people who binged reported a history of trauma.
Binge eating is considered a nonverbal communication modality of painful aspects that are difficult to verbalize. They provide short-term side benefits that lead to your keeping over time.
I know to describe it as “a strategy that was used on one occasion with ‘positive’ results and that continued to be used more and more until it ‘appropriated’ the identity of the person and their relational circuits”.
Traumatic experiences (such as death, divorce, parental conflict, parental emotional distance, physical, psychological or sexual violence, etc.) can cause great emotional turmoil in people.
Eating as a form of emotional comfort
In addition, some people may have difficulty verbalizing the discomfort or do not have support figures available. Namely, they avoid talking about it, they use jokes or irony to downplay it or they are emotionally inaccessible and distanced.
In these cases, binge eating may provide short-term relief of negative emotions related to trauma. Likewise, they would help to avoid thinking or shift attention away from what worries them, it hurts them or they cannot control, towards another more bearable and self-controlled problem.
A) Yes, food in eating disorders has a symbolic meaning. That is, it provides emotional comfort, reduces negative and stressful emotions, and facilitates emotional disconnection or anesthesia from traumatic events.
This is how intolerance to negative emotions is generated and binge eating will be resorted to whenever experienced. However, the avoided pain remains, increases, and emerges as a symptom, as is the case with binge eating.
Following Sigmund Freud, we remember that: “Unexpressed emotions never die. They are buried alive and come out later in uglier forms.”
Why did they increase in confinement?
The covid-19 pandemic has triggered an increase in cases of eating disorders. It has also aggravated pre-existing symptoms. Specifically, binge eating has increased significantly among people who already had this problem before lockdown, but also among the general population. Above all, It has been proven that people with some early trauma have been particularly vulnerable.
Many reasons could explain this increase. The pandemic has increased feelings of loneliness, sadness, stress and the sense of control has diminished. As we have mentioned, these emotions precede binge eating.
Furthermore, during this period traumatic experiences have increased. Along these lines, during confinement, it is likely that we have felt emotions that were previously anesthetized or buried in the frenetic activity of everyday life. This may also have been due to the decrease in stimuli around us.
Binge eating, therefore, has been used as a dysfunctional way of coping, relieving negative emotions, and returning to regain a sense of control.
At the University of Deusto, in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University, we are carrying out a study to analyze why some people who have had traumatic experiences develop eating problems and others don’t. That is, the objective is to define the risk factors and the protective factors. The research, which is financed by the Basque Government, is still is open to collecting data of volunteer participants.