The Science Behind Why We Binge (And What To Do About It)

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 (a.k.a. "shopaholism") is increasing, and binge drinking is widespread, especially among women. 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.)

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.

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. 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.

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.

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," says Mantell. "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.

What Can I Do?
No matter why (or how) someone binges, there are plenty of treatment options available for those who seek help. 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.

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 okay 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.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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