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Talking About Overeating

Image of 4 scoops of ice cream with chocolate sauce. Newton Psychologist Abby Blackburn Talks About Overeating

Why is Compulsive Eating Considered A Disorder?

This is an interesting question, especially if you contemplate what the word “disorder” actually means. I am not a huge fan of the kind of language that tries to define what is “normal” and what is “abnormal.” However, it is important to talk about how we might be suffering, understand that others suffer too and figure out the most useful way to help ourselves. In that sense, we might think about a “disorder” being something that gets in the way of how we live – how we experience our work, school, friends and family – even how we experience ourselves.

Compulsive overeating can interfere with our capacities to have healthy relationships. It can consume time and energy that would otherwise be spent on connecting with others, engaging in activities or pursuing meaningful work. Overeating, especially if it is in extremely large quantities, can produce feelings of extreme lethargy and emotional numbing.

If this behavior continues over long periods of time, compulsive eating can result in weight gain and other health issues which can cause physical as well as emotional distress. People who overeat often do so in secret. After gaining weight, folks frequently withdraw socially from others, resulting in a continuation of behavior that isolates themselves from friends and family.

Do Some Particular Emotions Underpin Compulsive Eating?

I often ask people “What would you be feeling if you were not eating?” The question is sometimes hard to answer. It is not uncommon for people to overeat as a way of unconsciously stuffing emotions that are too difficult to experience. Overeating is a great way to distract and numb yourself against distressing feelings. It is also a comforting and familiar experience.

Anger is one of the most common feelings people overeat in response to. Often folks have numbed themselves so deeply, they report not even feeling mad at any time! All kinds of anger can be swallowed – frustration with coworkers or your boss or irritation with your spouse, parents or children, can all lead to compulsive eating.

People eat large amounts to stem other feelings as well, including nervousness, sadness, dread, and anxiety. However, it is a mistake to believe only “negative” emotions fuel overeating; plenty of folks will eat too much when they are feeling intense joy, happiness or excitement. For some people, any strong feeling can induce a desire to numb and in turn, an inability to attend to one’s body and one’s true state of hunger.

What is the hunger you are trying to satiate?

People who have eating issues often have trouble knowing when they are physically hungry and physically full. More often than not, they are responding to internal and external cues that trigger sensations which mimic hunger and mask satiation. As a result, they consume food when their bodies don’t need the fuel and continue to eat past the point of actual necessity.

The cues I am referring to can come from all kinds of places – present day stressors as well high as old injuries from the past. In my practice, the majority of people I see with compulsive overeating are successful individuals who were not well cared for growing up. Many of these folks never endured physical or sexual abuse, but they were badly neglected in terms of emotional and psychological needs.

In many of these cases, food becomes the substitute for real relationships, even real parents.

What needs to change?

Dealing with compulsive overeating is not just an issue of changing the way we eat. It also involves saying goodbye to a very important part of our lives. Let’s face it, in lots of ways using food to cope with stress WORKS!

Food is a great companion. We know what it is going to look like and taste like. It is easily obtainable, always consistent and extremely predictable…unlike people! People can let us down, they can hurt our feelings, make us angry and even leave. Where we cannot control people, we can control food.

The problem is that our relationship with food can sometimes take on a life of its own and ultimately, it ends up being something that can alienate us – both from ourselves and from others. It can get in the way of having real attachments and meaningful experiences with others.

So we need to work on creating not just a new relationship with food, but on new relationships with our bodies and with people who are capable of being involved with us in ways that can be comforting and reliable.

How can psychotherapy help?

Psychotherapy can help in many ways with compulsive overeating. People can learn to identify patterns of behavior, triggers and cues that lead to abusing food. With help, they can train themselves to become more mindful of their bodies, especially when they are eating, so as to gain a reconnection to authentic feelings of hunger and fullness.

Therapy can also offer an opportunity to develop the kind of relationship which many folks have never experienced – one where real feelings can be expressed and tolerated, trust can be developed and healthy attachments created.

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