Can focusing on emotions when talking with your therapist improve symptoms of Binge-Eating Disorder (BED)?

Binge-eating disorder, although not formally recognized until added to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), is the most common eating disorder in the United States.   Having experienced the suffering from this diagnosis myself in the past, I used to refer to it as an emotional eating disorder.  Simply put, I used food to soothe and comfort myself.  I had not learned any healthy coping strategies when I experienced emotions, so I did my best to stuff them down with food.  It wasn’t until I took the journey of befriending my emotions and honoring their intelligence that I even became aware of my unhealthy relationship with food and eating behaviors.

Once I was able to accept my emotional beingness as a human, so many more things began to make more sense to me.  With the support of a good therapist, I came to learn that what I had experienced as a child was traumatizing and I disconnected from my emotions to survive.  However, living life from only the logical intelligence perspective was so limited.  And, even though I disconnected – or dissociated – from my emotions, it didn’t mean they went away.  They wanted to come out and be heard, so they knocked on the door loudly, sometimes bursting in when I least expected or wanted them.  So I used food to try to quiet them down, like you feed a baby when they are crying.

When I learned how to recognize my emotions and allowed them to have some air time, I was able to engage in a dialogue with them so they could inform me what I needed in the moment.  I then needed to learn how to give myself what I needed.  My personal journey towards valuing my superpower – my emotional intelligence – is the reason that my psychotherapy services include emotion-focused therapy (EFT).  Prior to EFT being researched to the point of becoming an evidenced-based practice, most research and treatment for BED aligned with cognitive behavioral therapies (CBTs).  Unfortunately, these approaches could not address efficacy, failure to abstain from such unhealthy eating, and high drop-out rates from treatment, because powerful emotions are among the most accurate predictors of BED.

This realization led researchers to consider exploring other psychological treatments with a focus on emotions.  A recent research study looked at EFT as an alternative treatment approach for BED other than CBT.  The results validate my own personal journey.  The findings provided additional evidence that individual EFT might be beneficial in the treatment of BED, as it supports clients in processing uncomfortable emotions instead of relying on food as an emotional coping mechanism.

To read the full article, click the link below:

Can welcoming and accepting our unpleasant emotions change an unhealthy relationship to food?

Growing up, my parents had two different approaches to emotions.  One, my mother, expressed them all the time and the other, my father, never expressed them at all, believing that showing emotion was a sign of weakness.  As I write this, I now know that my household was not all that uncommon.  What I have learned over my life time is that many people struggle to balance their emotional experiences because we were never taught that emotions are natural, universal, and intelligent.  Instead, we were taught that unpleasant emotions were not welcome and somehow had to be controlled!

Being a more “right-brained” human, I tried my best to control my emotions over the years, having internalized the cultural myth that emotions can be controlled.  What tools are available to use in a war to try and control unpleasant emotions?  Exercise? Shopping? Work? Food?  Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes!  Over the years, work and food took center stage for me as my weapons of choice.

I didn’t understand then that those weapons were pointed at me, trying to harm or shut up a significant source of my innate human intelligence, the part of my intelligence that was trying to tell me that my needs were not being met in that moment.  I used those weapons to attempt to distract myself from a sense of overwhelm and loss of control.  Work became a source of comfort for the part of me that wanted to have a voice and food became a source of comfort for the part of me that believed it had just survived a life-challenging event, where it had navigated through the overwhelm and came out on the other side.  Food became almost a reward for making it through each day, with my thoughts saying “You did a good job, so you deserve to treat yourself to a big meal” and my body initially responding to the food intake with a release of tension, almost as if it was thanking me for finally giving it fuel to continue to live.  Now I recognize the need that was not getting met in the moment was comfort!

Before the diagnosis of binge-eating disorder (BED) officially made it into the DSM-V in 2013, I would (and still do) describe my past, unhealthy relationship with food as an emotional eating disorder.  I had bought into the “comfort food” phenomenon, where people seek out certain foods that create a temporary elevation of mood and a sense of relaxation.  It was only after spending time with a compassionate therapist and discovering yoga as a replacement tool was I able to befriend my emotions and my body enough to listen to what they were trying to tell me.  When I gave them “on air” time, I was able to become more aware of how I used food to soothe and distract from facing the fear and feeling the sting of powerful emotions, such as shame and rejection.

It was my own personal journey of learning to sit with my powerful emotions and honor that they serve me that brought my emotions into balance, so they don’t feel so overwhelming and scary anymore (and no longer show up in the most inappropriate places!).  In fact, when I start to feel overwhelmed, it is a red flag to “STOP” and reevaluate what I need to bring back balance.  By welcoming and accepting all of my emotions, I was able to establish a healthy relationship to food, recognizing food as simply fuel for my vehicle, so I could begin to make food choices that might be considered “premium gas” for my body.

It is also my own personal healing journey that has informed my work as a psychotherapist, embracing emotion-focused therapy as my “go to” approach.  What I learned – and share with my clients – is that as humans, we all have emotions and would not want to control them because they inform us, as they are a powerful source of intelligence.  So how excited was I when I read new research that validated my personal experience!  This research confirmed that the experience of unpleasant emotions is among the most accurate predictors for binge eating episodes in BED and individuals with BED often experience difficulties with deficits in emotion regulation.  It looked at the effectiveness of emotion-focused therapy to reduce the reliance on an eating disorder as an emotional coping mechanism and the evidence is emerging for the benefits of EFT for BED!

If you would like to read the full research article, click the link below: