At some point, we've all emerged 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?
The causes of bingeing
In simple terms, bingeing is the act of consuming an excess of something in a short amount of time, be it food, alcohol, drugs, you name it. Bingeing behavior might be more common than you think.
For example, binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder there is. It currently affects about 3 percent of U.S. adults. Brownley KA, et al. (2016). Binge-eating disorder in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. DOI: 10.7326/M15-2455
Compulsive buying disorder is slightly more common, affecting about 6 percent of the population. Aboujaoude E. (2014). Compulsive buying disorder: A review and update. DOI: 10.2174/13816128113199990618
Binge drinking - that is, knocking back four or five drinks in two hours or less - is also widespread, especially among college students. Kuntsche E, et al. (2017). Binge drinking: Health impact, prevalence, correlates and interventions. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2017.1325889
As it turns out, binge behaviors - whether drinking, eating, or shopping - actually have similar causes. Clinical psychologist 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, full-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.
Triggers for bingeing behavior
Whether someone is bingeing on pizza, booze, or clearance sales, the triggers are not completely known. But researchers have identified at least three categories of trigger so far: psychological, chemical, and sociocultural. (Stick with us here - we won't get too dense.)
A lot of the time, bingeing is simply a way to numb unhappy feelings. For example, studies show that some common risk factors for binge drinking among college students are anxiety, stress, and - you guessed it - depression. Kuntsche E, et al. (2017). Binge drinking: Health impact, prevalence, correlates and interventions. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2017.1325889
Naturally the pain and guilt that come in the aftermath of a binge can trigger stress, which can trigger another binge - not exactly a fun cycle to get caught in.
Sometimes people overindulge because it feels great (until regret sets in, anyway). When we eat junk food, for example, our brains release the feel-awesome neurotransmitter dopamine - and in staggering quantities. Oginksky MF, et al. (2016). Eating 'junk-food' produces rapid and long-lasting increases in NAc CP-AMPA receptors: Implications for enhanced cue-induced motivation and food addiction. DOI: 10.1038/npp.2016.111
You can imagine what happens next. Once our brains secrete dopamine during a binge, that feeling can become a physical addiction. We then binge more and more because we crave that same rush of chemicals.
For people without a strong sense of self-confidence, the pressures of a culture that emphasizes coolness through consumption can also lead to bingeing.
“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.”
What can I do to stop bingeing?
No matter why (or how) someone binges, there are plenty of treatment options available for those who seek help.
Mantell suggests trying the THINK model when a binge feels imminent. For example, if an impulse like “I must buy that now” comes up, ask whether your feelings are:
Being aware of your feelings may help you understand your drive to binge. Which brings us to our next point…
If bingeing is negatively affecting your life to the point that it causes distress or financial, social, or physical harm, therapy is a great first step.
Mantell recommends visiting a cognitive behavioral therapist to figure out if your binges are a standalone problem or if they're caused by something else, like depression or a mood disorder.
Take a walk
It sounds simple, we know, but studies link movement to profound mental health benefits. A 2013 study showed that regular exercise has a protective effect against anxiety and depression, which are associated with bingeing behavior. Anderson E, et al. (2013). Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
A 2014 literature review of 14 studies showed that mindfulness practices - like meditation - can decrease binge eating and emotional eating. Katterman SN, et al. (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. DOI: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.01.005
This is not woo-woo, folks. A 2013 study found that yoga significantly decreased cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is that pesky stress hormone that sometimes leads us to binge. Thirithalli J, et al. (2013). Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. DOI: 10.4103/0019-5545.116315
Stick to a schedule
This one is for those struggling with binge eating, specifically. A 2014 study showed that participants who ate three meals a day, plus two or three snacks in between, binged less frequently over the course of a week. No more putting off meal breaks, people. Zendegui EA, et al. (2014). Binge eating frequency and regular eating adherence: The role of eating pattern in cognitive behavioral guided self-help. DOI: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.03.002
Find a support group
When you're “in it,” knowing you're not alone can mean everything. To help accomplish this, we recommend finding a support group near you. Here are a handful of options:
If a 12-step program isn't really your style, don't worry. There's also Secular Organizations for Sobriety, Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, LifeRing, and Moderation Management.
Learn more about bingeing
If you're a personal development or self-help enthusiast, books can be an amazing resource for doing the inner work around bingeing behavior.
The bottom line
Binges can sneak up on all of us from time to time, whether it's watching Netflix for 12 hours straight or spending a Sunday in bed scrolling through Instagram. But if bingeing is interfering with your daily life, it may be time to take additional steps and reach out for support.