A 31-year-old male client tells me: “All my weekends look the same, I spend them on my couch and either I am scrolling endlessly through my social media or watching shows for hours. Add to this ordering online and then binge-eating. By the time it’s Sunday night, I am exhausted from all this consumption and loathe myself even more. I need to break this vicious cycle and find better ways, yet there seems to be no respite.”
As a therapist, whether it’s in private practice or during corporate training, I hear people tell me that when they find themselves overwhelmed and struggling with difficult emotions, they tend to engage in a pattern of binge consumption, in a variety of ways.
A good way to understand binge is to look at it from the perspective of consuming large or excessive amounts in a relatively short period. This may show up in the form of consuming large portions of food, watching shows back to back, scrolling on social media endlessly and consuming large quantities of alcohol or drugs in a short interval of time. On a difficult day, all of us may want to watch our favourite film, a show we find soothing or eat our comfort food. When this turns into bingeing, however, there is an overindulgence, stemming primarily from people feeling they are unable to stop themselves.
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From a mental health perspective, what lies beneath this behaviour very often is a desire to numb our feelings, particularly in moments when we feel overwhelmed or are experiencing extreme sadness, loneliness or anxiety. The reality is that many people may engage unconsciously in such behaviour, believing that it helps to distract them. While it does distract for some time, it doesn’t solve or allow for the processing of any of these difficult feelings.
So, any binge behaviour ends up being an unhealthy way of coping with situations because it doesn’t allow for the soothing at a deeper level that allows us to feel more equipped to solve what we are feeling. It can turn into denial and avoidance. People engaging in it often report feeling extremely low, guilty, exhausted, a sense of lack of control, body image issues, impulse behaviours, even a decrease in life satisfaction.
Over the last five years, and particularly since the pandemic, I have seen a significant increase in the number of people reporting binge behaviour. What’s also important to remember is that social media and a large number of platforms are designed in such a way that they encourage this kind of behaviour. Whether it’s the endless content on social media or the cliffhanger endings for television episodes, both contribute to people feeling a desire to engage in binge-watching and scrolling.
The availability of quick delivery options has facilitated the increase in binge-eating/drinking. Weekends and public holidays are times when binge behaviours increase. Clients also report that binge behaviour seems to take over whenever they feel low, anxious or lonely.
It’s hard for people who engage in bingeing behaviour to reach out for therapy, for they may experience a deep sense of shame and beat themselves up for not being able to control it. The first step is to observe and become mindful if you are engaging in binge behaviour. Second, become aware of the triggers and vulnerabilities that lead to it. Most importantly, reach out to a mental health professional, who, based on the detailed mental health history, can help you work through it.
Bingeing is a reminder of feelings and thoughts that we are choosing not to address, so choosing to pay attention to what is emerging may be crucial, even though it can be painful. You can then work with a therapist to process those feelings.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.
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