By Nick English
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.
"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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Bring Your Dog To Work
A recent study in the <em>International Journal of Workplace Health Management</em> showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/bringing-dog-to-work-stress_n_1391420.html" target="_hplink">bringing your dog to work</a> could help to lower office stress and boost employee satisfaction. "Pet presence may serve as a low-cost, wellness intervention readily available to many organizations and may enhance organizational satisfaction and perceptions of support," study researcher Randolph T. Barker, Ph.D., a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement. "Of course, it is important to have policies in place to ensure only friendly, clean and well-behaved pets are present in the workplace." The study, which looked at the pet-friendly company Replacements, Ltd., showed that employees who brought their dogs in to work experienced <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/bringing-dog-to-work-stress_n_1391420.html" target="_hplink">decreases in stress</a> throughout the work day. Meanwhile, self-reported stress <em>increased</em> for people who didn't bring their dogs, and for those who don't have dogs.
Laugh It Up
If you're feeling particularly stressed, perhaps it's time to take a quick YouTube break. A small 1989 study in the <em>American Journal of the Medical Sciences</em> showed that<a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2556917" target="_hplink"> "mirthful laughter"</a> is linked with lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Mayo Clinic reported that laughter also promotes <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00034" target="_hplink">endorphin release</a> in the brain and relaxes the muscles, which are all key for stress relief.
Grab A Shovel And Some Seeds
Caregiving is extremely stressful, but a 2008 survey showed that gardening may help to reduce stress among caregivers. The survey, by BHG.com, showed that 60 percent of caregivers feel <a href="http://www.alz.org/national/documents/release_110308_garden.pdf" target="_hplink">relaxed when they garden</a>, the Alzheimer's Association reported. And, Health.com reported on a Netherlands study, suggesting that gardening can help to <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20507878_2,00.html" target="_hplink">lower cortisol levels</a> and boost mood among people who had just finished a stressful task. That's because doing something that requires "involuntary attention" -- like sitting back and enjoying nature -- helps to replenish ourselves, Health.com reported.
Crack Open A Book
Just <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html" target="_hplink">six minutes of reading</a> is enough to help you de-stress, the <em>Telegraph</em> reported. The study, which was sponsored by Galaxy chocolate, suggested that <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html" target="_hplink">reading was linked with a slower heart rate</a> and muscle relaxation. Drinking tea or coffee, listening to music and taking a walk also seemed to help lower stress, according to the <em>Telegraph</em>.
Even if she's not there in person, a call to mom can help lower stress. <em>Scientific American</em> reported on a study in the journal <em>Proceedings of the Royal Society B</em> showing that young girls who <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/11/a-phone-call-from-mom-reduces-stress-as-well-as-a-hug/" target="_hplink">talked to their mothers on the phone</a> after completing stressful tasks had decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva, and increased oxytocin levels (the bonding hormone). The girls who talked to their mothers on the phone had <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/11/a-phone-call-from-mom-reduces-stress-as-well-as-a-hug/" target="_hplink">decreased cortisol</a> and increased oxytocin levels compared with young girls who weren't allowed to contact their mothers at all, <em>Scientific American</em> reported -- girls who hugged their moms in person had a similar reaction to the phone group.
Eat Some Chocolate
Dark chocolate doesn't only have health benefits for the heart -- eating it can also help to <a href="http://www.livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress-study-finds.html" target="_hplink">lower stress</a>. LiveScience reported on a study illustrating that eating 1.4 ounces of <a href="http://www.livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress-study-finds.html" target="_hplink">dark chocolate</a> a day for a two-week period is linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. That study was published in 2009 in the journal <em>Proteome Research</em>. (But of course, chocolate still contains sugar and lots of calories, so make sure you're eating the chocolate in moderation!)
Gossip may not be viewed as socially "good," but it <em>might</em> have benefits in relieving stress. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/17/gossip-stress-exploitation-heart-rate_n_1211207.html" target="_hplink">gossiping can actually lower stress</a>, stop exploitation of others and police others' bad behavior. "Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/17/gossip-stress-exploitation-heart-rate_n_1211207.html" target="_hplink">make people feel better</a>, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip," study researcher Robb Willer, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, said in a statement. Willer's research was published this year in the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em>. So if something's bothering you, go ahead and gab -- but just make sure you move on so you don't dwell on the negative emotions!