Table of Contents
- What is depression?
- How Are Binge Eating and Depression Linked?
- What Can You Do If You Struggle With Both Binge Eating Disorder and Depression?
Anyone who has ever struggled with their weight knows that feeling all too well–that feeling of depression after a binge. Sometimes it’s unexpected. You're doing your best to eat right and exercise, and maybe you’re even having some success and feeling good.
Then, before you know it, you relapse, and suddenly, you're downing an entire pint of ice cream or a package of cookies. Not only do you feel guilty afterward, but you also can't understand why you can't control yourself around food and get depressed.
But which comes first, depression or bingeing?
Research has shown that there is a link between binge eating and depression. In this blog post, I’ll explore the connection between these two conditions and what you can do if you find yourself struggling with both.
What is depression?
The term depression is used in many different ways. Some people say they’re depressed when a favorite TV series is canceled.
Others feel so depressed that they become hopeless and suicidal. There are different levels and intensities of depression, from major depression to low-level depression. All forms of depression include at least five of these symptoms:
- Sadness or depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure
- Changes in appetite (either eating more or eating less, unrelated to dieting)
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increase in the restless energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Suicidal thoughts
How Are Binge Eating and Depression Linked?
Multiple studies have shown that there is a strong link between binge eating and depression. In fact, one study found that nearly 60% of people who suffer from binge eating disorder also suffer from depression.
There are different theories on why this link exists.
One is that the brain chemistry of people who are depressed differs from those who aren’t, which can lead to changes in appetite.
Depression-related increases in appetite are associated with the hyper-activation of certain parts of our brains.
Increased appetite differs from binge eating, which refers to consuming a very large amount of food in a short period of time, followed by shame, guilt, and self-recrimination.
Another reason for the connection between binge eating and depression is sometimes called the “escape theory.” Bingeing is a way to temporarily escape feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness, and indifference. Bingeing is a way of coping with painful emotional states.
The irony is that although bingeing is a way of coping, the aftermath can cause feelings of increased depression.
What Can You Do If You Struggle With Both Binge Eating Disorder and Depression?
If you find yourself struggling with both binge eating and depression, it's important to seek professional help.
In addition to seeking professional help, there are a few things you can do on your own to start working through both conditions.
Identify why you’re eating
Be mindful of your eating habits. When you're hungry, ask yourself if you're really physically hungry or if you're eating to satisfy an emotional need. If it's the latter, there are other things you can do instead of reaching for food.
Physical hunger is located in the body. You experience a growling stomach or lightheadedness, and maybe you lose your words or feel “hangry” (the irritability that comes from being hungry). When you’re physically hungry, you’ll eat whatever is around to assuage your hunger.
In contrast, emotional hunger is located in the mind. When you’re emotionally hungry, a particular food Something looks good or sounds good, and the idea is that eating that food will make you feel emotionally better.
Identify why you’re depressed.
At its core, depression is about hopelessness. People who are depressed have lost hope in themselves, their future, and the world around them. The good news is that hope can be restored by challenging those thoughts and beliefs.
Express your fears and hopes by writing them out. This helps you get them out of your head so you can get some clarity. You can start looking at them more objectively and questioning their validity.
Identify resources for support
A big part of depression is feeling like you’re all alone in the world. When you’re talking to someone who understands what you’re going through, it can help reduce those feelings of isolation and loneliness.
It helps to talk with a friend, share in a support group, or process your experience with a therapist.
If you don’t have anyone in your life who understands, there are plenty of organizations (like this mental health hotline for depression or the National Eating Disorders Association helpline) that can help put you in touch with people who can help.
Identify ways to support yourself
The way we talk to ourselves has a lot to do with the way we feel. When we are harsh, punitive, and mean to ourselves, we might turn to food just to avoid our own mean voice. Instead, learn to respond to yourself in a kind, supportive, and encouraging manner.
Some people dismiss their experiences as ridiculous, silly, stupid, or “a first world problem.” Instead, validate and acknowledge what you’re going through. Remind yourself that you have overcome challenges in the past and will get through this, too.
Be patient with yourself. Healing from binge eating and depression takes time, and there are ups and downs along the way. Just because one day isn’t perfect doesn’t mean things will never improve.
Life is perfectly imperfect. Have faith in yourself and keep going; things will eventually start looking up again, and you’ll be able to cultivate a healthy, happy relationship with food.
An additional resource is my online community. Please join us at the “Food for Thought” Facebook community. Join members from all over the world who understand what it feels like to struggle with binge eating and who offer support and understanding on the journey to a binge-free happy life.
I want to lose weight, and everyone tells me to eat less and exercise more. I do my best, but I can’t stick to that advice. What am I doing wrong?
Its common advice to someone who wants to lose weight is, “Eat less and exercise more.”
That may sound like it makes sense. It’s logical. But for those who struggle with bingeing, it is NOT the solution. That’s because bingeing isn’t logical, it’s psychological. Keep this in mind:
1) The experience of deprivation or the anticipation of deprivation only makes us want something more. If you think you can't have pizza, ice cream, or chocolate (as an example), you're just going to crave it more. That’s behind the diet-binge cycle.
2) Sometimes, we turn suppressed emotions into physical discomfort. If you eat until you're in physical pain, you may be unconsciously converting emotional pain into physical pain.
3) Your emotions deserve our attention, not condemnation. We're conditioned to avoid feelings. When you experience something uncomfortable, you might eat for comfort or distraction. Consider what emotions you’re trying to avoid, and then find new ways of responding to yourself.
The next time you find yourself turning to food, remember it’s for a reason. If you’re turning “to” food, you’re turning “away” from something else. Take a moment to consider why. That’s the first essential step to breaking the cycle.
I’m trying to stay positive and be grateful for all the good aspects of my life, but I’m still bingeing. What am I doing wrong?
When you’re upset, you might tell yourself one of the following things:
“Don’t be upset, it could be a lot worse.”
“You have a lot to be grateful for.”
“At least you have a job to complain about.”
“Look on the bright side. This isn’t so bad.”
Although all these appear as positive affirmations, they're basically a polite way of discounting your feelings.
That kind of positive thinking actually ends up dismissing and discrediting what you feel.
There's a better way of reassuring yourself.
Start by validating and acknowledging your experience.
“I’m upset right now because this is an upsetting situation.”
“Of course, I’m angry right now. Who wouldn’t be in my situation?”
Then, give yourself some perspective. For example:
“I’m anxious right now, but I won’t always feel this way.”
“I’ve been through tough times, and I’ll get through this.”
To change your relationship with food, you'll need to change your relationship with your thoughts and feelings. Your emotions are simply reactions to situations, and they deserve your attention.
After all, we can’t positive-think away what’s upsetting. Only by acknowledging what’s going on and responding to ourselves differently do we feel less upset. And when we feel better, we don’t use food for comfort or distraction.
Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.