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Art Therapy and Bingeing

Contributor: Sondra Rosenberg, ATR-BC Creative Arts Therapy Supervisor at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia

unnamed (1)When people think about eating disorders, they typically think about anorexia and bulimia, and the extreme measures taken to control one’s weight. Recently, however, there has been much more attention paid to the symptom of bingeing, giving rise to a greater understanding in the culture about how people use food to cope with life problems.

What constitutes a binge?

We all overeat at times, but binge-eating is eating well past the point of fullness. The amount of food that constitutes a binge is variable, but someone who is bingeing typically feels out of control and unable to stop. Some people follow binges with compensatory behaviors like purging, exercising or restricting, though some do not. Not everyone who binges is overweight – it is a behavior and a relationship to food that does not necessarily correspond with size.

unnamedThe experience of bingeing is one that is usually associated with desperation – a feeling of bottomless need and not being able to get enough. Many describe it as being “taken over” by forces beyond their control. In a binge, food is usually consumed quickly, particularly if there is a fear of being “caught.” While some people plan binges, many allow themselves to do it while telling themselves “this is the last time”, only to repeat the behavior after an interval of time has passed. Though many people describe aspects of bingeing as pleasurable, it is also associated with a great deal of shame and self-judgment.

Why do people binge?

There are many reasons why people binge. First and foremost, it’s an effective way of numbing and distracting individuals from uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and boredom. It is an attempt to fill emotional and spiritual hungers with food. Bingeing is also a direct consequence of dieting or having a diet mentality.

Bingeing brings out a rebellious part of us that rejects the rules set by our more controlling selves. When we allow ourselves to have the forbidden food, we feel guilty and turn it into a method of self-punishment eating far more than what actually feels good. It can feel like giving up on the idea that you are good and sinking into a place of hopelessness, where you feel completely unacceptable for wanting and giving yourself what you want.

Art therapy and binge-eating

Art Therapy 2As an art therapist, I see a number of images that turn up in the work of people who binge. I see a lot of spirals, vortexes and black holes. These images speak to the feeling of having an inner void that they are attempting to fill using food. Monsters show up frequently in the work as well; people often describe feeling like there is a monster living inside of them that takes over when they binge or they see their appetites and desires as monstrous and unacceptable.

I also see a lot of food collages, where abundant images of highly caloric foods are presented as tempting but overwhelming. These collages visually articulate a central dilemma of the binge-eater – the demonization of desire and the equation of pleasure with sinfulness, an association that has deep roots in many religions around the world as well as a theme echoed repeatedly in food advertisements.

The art therapy room at The Renfrew Center becomes a safe space to explore all of these feelings and ideas. Creative self-expression provides a way to engage with and contain difficult feelings – the patient externalizes their inner experience and is then able to step back and contemplate it, thereby giving much needed perspective, as well as the satisfaction of seeing one’s unseen internal world reflected back in a tangible way.

When images like the ones described above emerge in the studio, it facilitates a process of articulating that which had previously been inchoate. We can ask questions about the voids; rearrange collages to reflect new, healthier relationships with food and the landscape of consumerism. We can create a dialogue with the monsters and see what they have to say. Often times, they are just vulnerable, rejected parts of us that have grown monstrous inside because they are very much in need of our love and attention.

Using art to explore your feelings about food

Woman painterIf art therapy appeals to you as a way of healing your relationship with food, here are some art therapy exercises you can try at home:

Think about what you are truly hungry for in your life – draw or create a collage reflecting those things.

Create an art project about a food related memory, one that has a strong emotional charge or a food that you binge on. For example: draw a memory involving chocolate – sometimes specific foods have a strong emotional charge because they remind us of people and experiences from our past – when we get hungry for those connections, we often reach for the foods that remind us of them.

Depict what it feels like before during and after a binge – notice what kinds of feelings give rise to bingeing, what happens to those feelings during the binge and what the aftereffects are.

Create a set of self-care cards with grounding imagery like trees to look at in those moments when you are tempted to numb out with food.

Other ways to explore your relationship with food

beautiful blonde woman painterOvercoming binge eating is difficult because there is much judgment attached to the behavior – instead of looking at ourselves with compassion and wondering why it’s so difficult to break the addiction to food, people who binge tend to label themselves as “disgusting”, “weak” or “bad”. If you can quiet the voices of judgment around bingeing, here are some things you might start to question or make observations about:

What are you allowing yourself in a binge that you aren’t allowing yourself in your life, both in terms of food (not allowing yourself to have sweets and then eating a whole box of cookies) and how you are in the world? For instance, do you hold back your feelings to the breaking point and then take everything out on yourself when you are alone? Do you spend a lot of energy trying to take care of other people, then feel depleted and use food to feed your own emotional hungers? What would it mean to give yourself permission to want?

How might the foods that you tend to binge on reflect what you are hungry for in your life? Map out all the associations you have to the foods that you crave the most and they will tell you about the deepest desires of your heart.

Next time you want to binge, ask yourself what you are feeling in the moment. The feelings you identify are the ones you probably need to build tolerance for. What would it be like to just feel your feelings instead of eating them away? You can notice the physical sensations of the feelings and the thoughts that go through your mind, then work on attending to what your body needs and engaging in supportive self-talk or reach out to a friend for support.

Food For SkincareWork to resist the good and bad foods mentality. Learning to trust yourself around food is not about making all the foods you really like off limits – it’s about letting go of judgments about food and learning to feed yourself the foods that you like in a way that actually feels good.

Work to break the ties in your mind between how you eat and how your body looks. When you are in your body, it’s fairly simple to eat what you want when you are hungry and stop when you’re full. However, if you are disconnected from your body and preoccupied with judgments about it, you’re much more likely to get stuck in a cycle of dieting and bingeing. When deciding if you want to eat something, leave body image out of the equation. Focus on how you feel and what you truly want.

To stop bingeing requires a willingness to be vulnerable and consider that what we have always regarded as a core of hopelessness may in fact be something wonderful within us that is in need of care and love. If you or someone you love is struggling with binge eating disorder speak with your primary care physician or a treatment facility, such as The Renfrew Center, which specializes in this type of care.


Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What impact has art therapy had on your recovery from disordered eating?  What advice do you have to share?

About the author:

Sondra Rosenberg photoSondra Rosenberg, ATR-BC is the Creative Arts Therapies Supervisor at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, where she leads groups that address issues including body image, trauma, self-injury, emotional regulation, media literacy and mindful eating. She received her BA in visual art from Oberlin College and her MA in art therapy from New York University. Ms. Rosenberg has presented regionally on the use of art therapy in the treatment of eating disorders, self-injury and trauma. She has also curated a traveling exhibit of patient artwork called “The Art of Recovery”, which has been featured at universities, art galleries and community centers. Her article “Birthing the monster: The transformation of a demonic self through voice dialogue and art therapy” was published in the Voice Dialogue Newsletter, and several of her reviews have been included in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. She maintains a private practice in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia and co-facilitates healing art workshops under the moniker Pink House Studios. Ms. Rosenberg brings a deep passion for art and a strong commitment to empowering women through creativity to her work.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders.  These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.  We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors.  If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 18, 2015. Published on

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