How many times have you said to yourself, “Why can’t I stop?”
I know I asked myself that very question so many times when I was struggling with bulimia.
I’d be so upset and frustrated with myself; I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t stop bingeing and purging despite my best intentions and daily resolve to be ‘good’.
The thing is bulimia eating disorder or more specifically the binge-purge cycle, that becomes established as bulimia develops, is really hard to stop and there are a number of reasons why.
1. Your Brain Is ‘Hard Wired’ To Binge
Think back in time a moment…
Had you been dieting or restricting your food intake in some way prior to the onset of bulimia, or maybe lost a lot of weight quickly? If so, and you are not alone here as this is generally the case, then the initial bingeing was most likely a response to messages from your brain, to EAT.
Those overwhelming uncontrollable urges to eat are part of a primitive survival mechanism that is outside your conscious control. It has no concept of dieting and it has no idea that food is readily available. The lack of energy coming in to your body (in the form of calories) has this part of the brain perceive a ‘famine’ and as such it WILL make you seek out and eat food.
Your conscious desire to stick to your ‘diet’ and will power simply aren’t enough in the face of the strong cravings for food and powerful urges to eat that emanate from this part of the brain.
Hunger is a one of the most powerful biological drivers we have and it is instinctive. And try as you might to resist, all to often the result is uncontrollable eating or bingeing.
For the brain the binge is a win but for you it is a disaster and purging follows.
And because purging follows the bingeing, the body is kept in a continual state of hunger (and or malnourishment). To redress this and get you to eat, your brain sends messages that you will receive as:
- A growing obsession with food
- Cravings to eat certain foods
- The continuation of uncontrollable urges to seek out food and eat
- A compulsion to eat as much as you can when food is available.
These messages remember are unconscious, instinctive and automatic and are there to ensure your survival. It is quite possible these messages send you into that trance like state prior to bingeing as the unconscious takes over conscious control.
2. Will Power Is A Limited Mental Resource.
Now you’ve probably tried using or are trying to use will power to…
- Resist your hunger or craving for food.
- Stick to your dieting rules and restrictions
- Prevent yourself from bingeing.
And you’ve no doubt blamed yourself for being weak willed or greedy when you cave in.
But here’s the thing we each only have so much will power!
It is a limited mental resource.
3. Binging is Pleasurable
When you cave in, those denied foods taste great and this feels good. Any tension created from trying to resist the food dissipates as you let go and give into your cravings and eat what you want – and this feels good too. A strong cocktail of feel good chemicals are released, and the brain registers pleasure, which it then connects to the binge food.
These powerful messages are stored in the brain so that the next time the urge to binge is there, the memory that binging is pleasurable jumps into the foreground – making the urge that much harder to resist. And any promises you made to yourself “Never to do it again” or any feelings of disgust you may have about purging fade into the background.
4. Secondary Benefits
On top of the physical urges to eat motivated by hunger, us human beings also have urges to eat when we’re feeling ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ (when there’s a further tendency to desire certain foods; the so called “comfort foods” those high in sugar and fat) and also when we’re happy!
Think about it…
From an early age we’re conditioned to ‘use’ food for comfort. For example it’s very common to have been given, sweets, chocolate or cake to make us feel better, say, when we hurt ourselves, were feeling sad or ill.
We are naturally pleasure seeking and when suffering from bulimia there is a whole lot of stress, anxiety and upset. And you probably experience a lot of negatives thoughts and feelings about yourself and your body.
So whenever and for whatever reason you’re upset, your brain remembers how to quickly get pleasure and sends a signal to binge.
However these urges are not totally unconscious responses in the same way that the hunger binges are, we do have and can get control over these.
The dominating fearful thoughts of weight gain or of getting fat that come after the binge not to mention the incredible discomfort of a distended stomach, drives the desire to purge.
If throwing up is how you purge the relief from this compensatory behaviour can be immediate and a powerful message is sent to the brain (at an unconscious level) that purging is ‘good’.
That you believe that throwing up compensates for the binge – although that is not always the case – right? it maintains the behaviour. The thing is, throwing up and over exercise are highly ineffective as strategies to redress the binge.
Throwing up does not bring up all the food eaten. Even if you throw up immediately after a binge research has shown that it is highly likely that your body has already absorbed between 40% to 70% of the calories, eaten!
Over-exercising does not burn off fat, but breaks down muscle fiber, lowering your metabolism and increases hunger.
And as I mentioned above purging causes further bingeing creating a cycle that can become an addictive habit.
Anything repeated overtime becomes a habit. And this can be incredibly useful; imagine if you had to learn to drive a car every time you got into to go somewhere? You probably wouldn’t get out of the drive – right?
However, the brain doesn’t distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ habits – whether that is behaviours, thinking or feelings. Any ‘pattern’ done enough times becomes stored in the brain as a habit.
And whilst as we know habits can be pretty hard to break, they can be broken.
7. The Questions You Ask Yourself
Surprising that question “Why can’t I stop?” is helping to keep you trapped!
“Why Can’t I Stop?” seems a logical question to ask yourself but the problem is that in asking yourself this question, your brain looks for the answer and will come up with all sorts of reasons as to why you have the problem, reinforcing why you do, keeping you trapped.
Far better questions to ask yourself are:
- How can I recover?
- What do I need to do to recover?
- What needs to change so I can stop bingeing and purging?
Hopefully, the above 7 points will give you some insight into answering the above questions and start the process to setting you free.
Bulimia Recovery Coach
Julie won a 15 year battle with bulimia over 20 years ago and now mentors and coaches others to bulimia freedom. She is a compassionate, caring bulimia recovery coach who brings a unique and powerful perspective on recovery that has helped people from all walks of life, not just stop bingeing and purging but learn how to love themselves and their bodies and create a life they love.