I can understand if it’s confusing to hear that triggers don’t cause your overeating. I’ve heard the advice given so many times, that you need to find and resolve the triggers of your overeating or binge eating before you can change the behaviour.
To start with, there are thousands of potential triggers. Here’s just a small sample:
- Your finances
- Your relationship(s) or lack thereof
- Issues with your kids
- Or issues with not having kids
- Seeing someone you know who has lost weight, or someone who has put on weight
- Weighing yourself
- Trying on clothes
- A bully for a boss
- Co-workers you don’t get on with
- A familiar place (filling stations, particular shops, your parents’ home…)
- Christmas, Lent, Easter, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Eid, or any other traditional period
- Seeing particular foods
- Pictures in magazines
- Anything you feel (physical or emotional)
- Any thought you have
Believing that you have to have your whole life worked out before you can change your eating behaviour is a terrifying prospect! And it’s completely untrue! We can be peaceful eaters, and still have messy aspects to our lives! Thankfully. I’m an example!
Why triggers don’t matter
When I say triggers don’t matter, I don’t mean to discount what is happening in your life. Of course, not. You and your life absolutely matter! What I am saying is that you don’t have to figure out what the triggers are and resolve them, in order to eat peacefully.
Urges are common to all triggers
If you think about it – it isn’t the triggers themselves that ‘make’ you overeat – it’s the unpleasant experience of an urge! You eat, because you want that feeling to go away. It can seem unbearable. It’s a feeling that can be so strong, it’s overwhelming- and it can make you panic, and feel powerless over your actions.
So what is an urge?
My understanding is that an urge is created through repetition. If you’ve brushed your teeth after breakfast repeatedly, you will find that you will have an urge to brush your teeth after breakfast. If you always have a cup of tea and a biscuit at 11 am, that will be something you come to expect. At 11 am, on cue, you have an urge for a cup of tea and a biscuit – your gastric juices have started to kick off (before even putting anything in your mouth) because there’s an expectation that you’ll be having a cup of tea and a biscuit (remember Pavlov and his dogs? Same thing here).
What happens is that your brain creates a neural pathway, and with repetition, it is reinforced.
This is a simple understanding of what happens:
- The components are: the stimulus (a cue or trigger), the action you take (the routine), and the reward that follows (the routine produces neurotransmitters – chemicals in the brain that flood the reward centres – mostly, dopamine, which helps to slow the breath, calm you down, and gives you that pleasurable feeling).
- The cue/ trigger can be anything internal (a thought, an emotion or a physical sensation) or external (a million options there!).
- For example: say you’re highly anxious at parties, and what you have done a few times is to stand at the buffet table and make your way through the food. You feel comforted and more relaxed (those reward centres are being flooded by dopamine). So the next time you go to the party, you feel the urge to head over to the buffet table. The feeling is so big, it’s almost overwhelming. You can barely concentrate on what people around you are saying, because it feels like the buffet table is actually beckoning to you!
So what you need to focus on, is the experience of the urge. That is what needs to be managed. If you didn’t have the urge to eat, you wouldn’t eat, right? If you didn’t have the urge to binge, you wouldn’t binge… understood?
What’s helpful to know, is that the urge is only present because you have created a conditioned response.
The good news
All is not lost, and you’re not doomed to a life of overeating and hanging out at the buffet table.
The good news is that the brain is neuroplastic! This means that it can and does change.
Here is a shortened version of a tool I find helpful when I’m working with clients to help them ‘be with’ their urges:
Surfing the urge
See the urge as a jumpy puppy. If you give the puppy your attention, it will keep jumping up on you, leaving muddy paw prints on your new white trousers. Just as it’s a bit annoying to deal with a jumping puppy until it learns not to jump on you every time you walk in the door, you can treat urges in the same way.
Your urges will be triggered. Expect this to happen.
It will require you to remind yourself ‘this is an urge.‘ It’s nothing to worry about. The urge will produce feelings: anxiety, frustration, intense discomfort… so expect these too.
The most powerful thing you can do, is to allow the urge to play itself out, as you would with a tantruming child. If you pay the child a lot of attention, try to reason with her, distract her, shout at her, or argue with her, she’ll just scream louder and louder.
But, if you sit quietly, patiently, knowing full well that this will pass, it will. You can simply observe it, without getting tied up in it.
Essentially what you’re doing is breaking the loop between the cue (the urge) and the routine (the binge/overeating). If you do that enough times, the urges will lessen enormously.
And maybe even stop altogether. Though, every now and again the urge will likely be triggered again… no problem… you know what to do… allow it to play itself out, as calmly as possible.
You absolutely must feed yourself when you’re hungry! That is one urge that you cannot surf successfully, if you want to have a peaceful relationship with your body and food. The biological drive for food will always win, and in fact, food restriction – be it mental or physical, is a major reason for binge eating.
Also, it’s vitally important that you give yourself permission to eat what you want. If you use the ‘surf the urge’ tool to deprive yourself of foods you believe are unhealthy, fattening, or that you think you have no control over, then this won’t work either! This is the mental restriction I alluded to above. A part of this whole picture is to make peace with ‘trigger foods’ – the foods you fear.
More on triggers…