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Skills You Can Use to Stop Bingeing and Overeating Now

How to take action to change unwanted behaviors.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The first goal of therapy should be interrupting any unwanted behaviors, such as binge eating disorder (BED), compulsive overeating (CO), and obsessing about food or your body. Research has shown that the majority of people with binge eating have chaotic eating patterns: They eat more, both at meals and during binges, than people who are living in larger bodies but don’t binge eat; they tend to engage in weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting; they eat over longer periods of time; and they are unable to regulate their eating behavior both during and between binge episodes.

Buddhist theory views pain as part of the human condition and distinct from suffering. Suffering is defined as nonacceptance of pain. For example, if you go through a divorce after 20 years of marriage, you will experience pain in the form of anger, sorrow, fear, and other emotions. Suffering comes about when, instead of accepting your feelings, you blame other people for how you feel, get stuck in feeling sorry for yourself, or distract yourself from your true emotions.

There are skills that can help you if you want to move on and just don’t know how. One of these skills is mindfulness. When you are mindful, you observe and describe what you are experiencing, even when the experience is painful. One of the most important elements of mindfulness is learning not to judge your emotions, the emotions of others, or your situation. Such judgments are common—for example, we often describe things as good or bad, including food.

One type of skill is the ability to distract yourself from unpleasant or overwhelming feelings and to give you some distance between your emotions and your unwanted behaviors, thereby learning to tolerate distress without using food.

We experience distress when things don’t go our way, situations are upsetting but cannot immedi- ately be changed, and relationships don’t meet our needs. Highly sensitive individuals may feel things more strongly than others, taking offense even when no offense is meant. Because distress can be difficult to tolerate, you may have found yourself overeating, bingeing, drinking, or engaging in other unwanted behaviors to get rid of unpleasant feelings.

There are four types of skills for improving distress tolerance: skills of distraction, self-soothing skills, skills for immediately improving the moment, and the pros-and-cons skill. These skills come from a type of therapy called “dialectical behavior therapy," originally developed by Marsha Linehan.

Skills of distraction. Distraction can put distance between a current situation and your feelings. You can intentionally use distraction to interrupt emotionally charged thoughts that lead to unwanted behaviors. There are many different ways to distract yourself, such as taking a walk, calling a friend, taking three deep breaths, and reading. One distraction skill that has been particularly helpful to many of my patients is the skill of push away, or leaving a situation alone for a time. To do this, imagine yourself putting a problem into a lockbox and then storing that box on the top shelf of your closet until you are less emotional or have more support and are ready to take it out and deal with it.

Self-soothing skills. Learning to self-soothe is part of learning to love yourself and accepting that you deserve to be loved. The skills of self- soothing employ the five senses. For example, you might soothe yourself by taking a bubble bath, smelling a rose, listening to music, or noticing the beauty of nature.

Pros-and-cons skill. When you analyze your current situation for its pros and cons you discover all the different ways the situation does and doesn’t serve you. This can help you become better aware of the benefits of tolerating your distress rather than continuing unwanted behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, bingeing, overeating, drinking, or engaging in other impulsive and hurtful behaviors.

To use the pros-and-cons skill you would analyze the advantages and disadvantages of not acting from your emotions—i.e., learning to tolerate distress. How would it affect your eating disorder, for example, if you stopped acting from emotions? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? Finding pros for learning to tolerate distress is easy: If you were better at managing your emotions, you would stop bingeing, you would feel better about yourself, your life would be improved. But you’d also give up certain things. For example, if you stopped using food to manage your distress, you’d no longer enjoy the instant gratification that comes with doing so. Be as honest as you can about how your eating disorder helps and hurts you.

Many types of therapy and medication can improve your chances of long-term recovery. If you still think you can do it on your own and don’t want to seek outside help or support, ask yourself how long you’ve been going it alone and how it's working for you. You can even use the pros-and-cons exercise to ask yourself, What are the pros or cons of continuing to try to do this on my own?


The Anchor Program is a 12-week non-diet online program for people living with binge eating, food obsessions, and emotional eating. Sign up for a free consult to discuss whether you would be a good candidate for the program

Chapman A. L. (2006). Dialectical behavior therapy: current indications and unique elements. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 3(9), 62–68.

Dialectical behavior therapy for clients with binge-eating disorder or bulimia nervosa and borderline personality disorder.

Chen EY, Matthews L, Allen C, Kuo JR, Linehan MM.Int J Eat Disord. 2008 Sep;41(6):505-12. doi: 10.1002/eat.20522.