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The Science Behind Why We Binge (and What to Do About It)

Ever found yourself unable to stop eating, drinking, or shopping? Losing control can be exhilarating, but where do we draw the line, and why do we binge in the first place?
Bingeing at the Buffet
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At some point, we’ve all awoken from some kind of binge, perhaps surrounded by beer bottles, candy wrappers, or shopping bags, and asked ourselves: What the hell happened? How can rational, functioning adults totally lose control of their impulses?

What's the Deal?

As it turns out, whether it’s drinking, eating, or shopping, different binge behaviors actually have similar causes. Greatist Expert and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Mantell explains that all types of bingeing are “ways of dealing with negative emotions that are not rational or healthy.” But when does the occasional overindulgence become a real problem? According to Mantell, fully-fledged binge disorders are characterized by feelings of powerlessness, secrecy, shame, and social isolation. Once someone feels a need to binge in private, or schedule binges around (or instead of) work and social obligations, it’s time to ask why.

Binge eating is currently the most common eating disorder in adults, compulsive buying disorder (aka “shopaholism”) is increasing, and binge drinking is widespread, especially among women [1]. Whether it’s pizza, booze, or clearance sales, the causes of any type of binge behavior can fall into three categories: psychological, chemical, and sociocultural. (Stick with us here, we won’t get too dense.)

Psychological

The most common causes of bingeing are anxiety, stress, and depression—a lot of the time, it’s simply a way to numb unhappy feelings. But bingeing can also be a symptom of an undiagnosed mental disorder. Depression, for example, can lead to low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, poor impulse control, and difficulty managing feelings—all of which can trigger a binge. Naturally the pain and guilt that comes in the aftermath of a binge can trigger depression, which can trigger another binge… not exactly a fun cycle to get caught in.

Chemical

Of course people also overindulge because it can feel great—before regret sets in, anyway. The brain releases the feel-awesome chemical dopamine when we eat fat and sugar, when we drink alcohol, or even when we see new things to buy [2]. Once the brain secretes dopamine during binges, they can become like a physical addiction—we binge more and more because we crave the rush of chemicals. Similarly, low levels of dopamine and serotonin (another happy chemical) can lead to compulsive behavior (like bingeing) and depression [3] [4].

Stress and anxiety can also make people binge by making them more prone to “reward seeking behavior”—basically stress can make us lose perspective and prioritize the nice feelings (“reward”) we get during a binge over the regret that inevitably comes later [5].

Sociocultural

Without a strong sense of self-confidence, the pressures of a culture that emphasizes coolness through consumption can also drive people to binges.

“We’re always being told that you’re not worth anything if you’re not thin, if you don’t drink, if you don’t own certain things,” Mantell says. “That pressure to be perfect can definitely lead to anxiety and binge-like behavior.”

Mind Over Matter

Many experts link bingeing to a lack of mindfulness, especially relating to emotions. People who are prone to compulsive behavior tend, in general, to have more difficulty understanding their feelings and handling stress. There are many ways to help remedy the issue, such as mindfulness meditation and writing down emotions throughout the day. When a binge feels imminent, Mantell suggests the THINK model: ask whether these feelings are True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind. For example, an impulse like, “I must buy that now,” doesn’t exactly fit the THINK bill.  Being aware of one’s emotional states can help reduce stress, anxiety, and consequent bingeing, so working on improving mindfulness is never a bad idea [6].

What Can I Do?

No matter why (or how) someone binges, there are plenty of treatment options available for those who seek help. Dr. Mantell recommends first visiting a cognitive behavioral therapist to figure out if the binges are a standalone problem or if they’re caused by more serious mental issues, like depression or a mood disorder [7].

After talking with a mental health professional, the recommended next step is to work on controlling binges through continued therapy. Finding a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, or Debtors Anonymous can also be useful in many cases.

Remember, self-treatment is only OK for less serious cases of binge behavior. If bingeing is continuously, negatively impacting your life—to the point where it causes distress or financial, social, or physical harm—therapy should be the first step.

Thanks to Dr. Michael Mantell and Dr. Heather Hausenblas for their help with this article.

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Works Cited +

  1. Psychological Treatments for Binge Eating Disorder. Iacovino JM, Gredysa DM et al. Current Psychiatry Reports, 2012 Aug;14(4):432-46.
  2. Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior. Avena NM, Rada P, et al. Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA. Journal of Nutrition, 2009 Mar;139(3):623-8.
  3. Neurobiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder: serotonin and beyond. Westenberg HG, Fineberg NA, et al. CNS Spectrums, 2007 Feb;12(2 Suppl 3):14-27.
  4. Serotonin and dopamine transporter imaging in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hesse S, Müller U, et al. Psychiatric Research, 2005 Oct 30;140(1):63-72.
  5. Sensitivity to reward: implications for overeating and overweight. Davis C, Strachan S, et al. Appetite, 2004 Apr;42(2):131-8.
  6. Mindfulness-based stress reduction lowers psychological distress in medical students. Rosenzweig S, Reibel DK, et al. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 2003 Spring;15(2):88-92.
  7. Compulsive buying. Lejoyeux M, Weinstein, A. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 2010 Sep;36(5):248-53.

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