Is Stress a Trigger for Binge Eating?

walkway into trees

There are several different kinds of eating disorders. For the most part, you can tell eating disorders apart based on the different disordered behaviors that someone might do. Binge eating is one example of a disordered behavior that people with different eating disorders might struggle with.

It’s often believed that stress triggers binge eating. But is that really the case?

What’s Binge Eating?

Binge eating is one of the most common eating disorder behaviors [1]. Binge eating is when someone eats a larger than normal amount of food in a short amount of time. Binges feel out of control and lead to feeling disgust, guilt, sadness, or anxiety afterwards.

This is more than simply over-eating, which we all do from time to time. Binge eating causes significant distress and is a common behavior among people with Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa, and Bulimia Nervosa.

Is Binging Dangerous?

Binging doesn’t get as much attention in the media as anorexia or bulimia. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t health consequences. In fact, binge eating is shown to have health consequences. These can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Nausea
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Acid reflux
  • Acne
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Ruptured intenstines [1].

Binge eating can be dangerous for everyone, regardless of body shape or size. While binging is often associated with people in bigger bodies, this isn’t true. People are all body shapes and sizes struggle with this disordered behavior. This is why it’s important to understand what leads to this behavior and finding the best ways to treat it.

What Causes Binge Eating?

There isn’t just one thing that can contribute to someone having an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. While no one is sure what exactly causes an eating disorder, research has found that there are certain factors that seem to trigger disordered eating.

Eating disorder professionals tend to say that binging is an attempt to soothe negative emotions [1]. For example, if someone gets laid off at their job, they may come home and binge to try to deal with the sadness. However, there isn’t just one thing that can trigger a binge.

Stress is one factor that is believed to trigger binges. Scientists recently did a study to really investigate if stress triggers binges [2]. Before this study, it wasn’t really clear if there was evidence to support this claim or if it was just a theory that had been widely accepted amongst healthcare professionals.

Does Stress Really Trigger Binge Eating?

Recently, researchers conducted a study to look at brain changes when people with anorexia and bulimia were subjected to stress and tempted to binge [2]. The study did show that stress does lead to changes in the brain that make it more difficult for people to control their impulses [2].

But, the part of the brain that makes it possible to think logically was not impaired [2]. This means that someone may understand why they shouldn’t binge, but their ability to control their impulses is impaired.

So, yes, stress can trigger binge eating but it doesn’t cause it. Understanding this can help eating disorder treatment professionals to support their clients in developing stress management and impulse control coping strategies. This can improve someone’s ability to manage their urges to binge and to stop the behavior.

Trees in the forest

What are Some Impulse Control Skills?

Impulsive behaviors, like binging, are any behaviors that are done without really thinking about it or the consequences of that behavior. There are things people can do to increase their impulse control skills. Here are some ideas:

  • Find distraction techniques. A distraction technique is anything that keeps you busy or keeps the harmful behavior off your mind until the urge passes. Some examples of distraction techniques include calling a friend, watching your favorite movie, or doing a puzzle.
  • Replacement behaviors. There’s a reason why someone binges. Whether it’s stress or for another reason, the binge serves some type of purpose. Try to figure out what that purpose is and replace it with something else that does the trick. If binge eating does help someone deal with stress, figure out some other stress management skills. This could be taking a walk, using aromatherapy, or painting. There’s a million other ideas. Find one that works for you.
  • Figure out the negative consequences. What are the downsides to binging? If you are aware of these you may be less likely to binge. If you’re only focused on the good things tied to a harmful behavior, you’re more likely to keep doing it. If you can hold the negative aspects in mind too, it might be easier to make a healthy decision.

Binge eating is harmful for everyone who engages in it. Regardless of whether you’re binging because of stress or a handful of other possible reasons, get help today.


Resources:

[1] The Emily Program. (2019, January 31). Physical effects of binge eating disorder. https://www.emilyprogram.com/blog/physical-effects-of-binge-eating-disorder/

[2] Westwater, M.L., Mancini, F., Gorka, A.X., Shapleske, J., Serfontein, J., Grillon, C., Ernst, M., Ziauddeen, H., & Fletcher, P.C. (2021). Prefrontal respondes during proactive and reactive inhibition are differentially impacted by stress in anorexia and bulimia nervosa. The Journal of Neuroscience, 41(20), 4487-4499.


About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on 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.

Published June 23, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 23, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC