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Let's talk about shame (baby)! Let's talk about you and me!

The other day I ordered some food off a delivery app, and when I received it, the food was literally black. No joke, as burnt as you could imagine. How it made it into a to-go box without being thrown out and redone is beyond me. I digress, however. It was a Friday night, and I had planned to do my grocery shopping Saturday morning, so my options were either to survive off snacks or order something else. I opted for the latter.

I live in an area that doesn't easily allow contactless delivery, so when I went to go grab my food I had a moment of panic thinking that the driver was the same as the previous order. I scrambled through the app to ensure the drivers were different. Crisis averted, they were different, but I was left with a feeling that was very similar to the shame people feel around binge eating.

Before working in private practice I directed a few eating disorder treatment centers across the country, and it never fails, anyone outside of the eating disorder field hearing about what I do always comment on helping them lose weight. Doesn't matter if I'm chatting with a stranger at an airport restaurant, making chit chat with an Uber driver, or paying for my coffee, the question about what I do for a living often comes up, and people make the assumption that working with people with eating disorders means that I help people lose weight. I usually handle it with grace, but I have to admit, it's still annoying and frustrating.

So often, when we talk about binge eating, we focus on the behavioral aspects, but the emotional aspects are ignored. How often do you hear someone misuse the word by saying something like, "Oh my, I just binged on those nachos!" What they mean was they ate passed fullness, or they didn't practice regular eating and lumped their energy into one meal, or maybe are a victim of our Western idealization of dieting and thought any portion of nachos is not okay (even if appropriate). What separates these circumstances from binge eating is that folks experience 1) distress related to the episode of binge eating and 2) shame following the episode.

So, let's talk about binge eating and shame! What is it? Why does it suck so much? What can we do about it?

If you have ever had a conversation with a mental health professional, they'll tell you that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is feeling bad about what we did and shame is feeling bad about who we are. And that is true, but I want to take things a step further and talk about how we experience emotions. Let's pull from the biopsychosocial theory of emotions. We, as humans, regardless of our background, experience emotions biologically, socially, and psychologically. Throughout the day, we are picking up stimuli. Whether it's the sound of screeching tires as you're crossing an intersection or the smell of the grass as you are mowing a lawn. All of these stimuli are picked up through our senses. The primal part of our brains has become really good at filtering out that information. Imagine if you had to consciously organize every sight, every smell, every touch, every taste, every sound you experience every day for the rest of your life. You would be exhausted! But our brains do that for us, and they are so good at it, that they process the information in less than a second. Once our brains process the information, it sends a message to our body to instinctually act in whatever way we need to. For example, ever sitting in a cold room and you don't notice it's cold until you notice yourself rubbing your arms to warm yourself up? This is our body picking up stimuli and responding to them. At this point, the frontal part of our brain is just now registering the information. When you notice yourself rubbing your arms, you usually have a second gap before you have the thought, "It's cold in here," and then another second gap when you process what to do with that saying to yourself, "I should put my jacket on."

Let's think about a binge episode now. Think about all of the stimuli you may experience. The fullness of your stomach. The pleasant taste of the food. Maybe there's a feeling left on your fingers (e.g., crumbs, moisture, grease). Maybe you ate too fast, and you are left fairly breathless. These sensations are processed by the back of the brain, and immediately you begin feeling the physical sensations associated with shame. All of this happens before you even register you are experiencing shame.

What does shame feel like? It's a universal feeling of heaviness in our body...often in our shoulders and stomach. We may feel a quickening of the heart. Once we begin experiencing these sensations, messages are sent to the front of our brain to figure out what those sensations mean, how they relate to past experiences, and to identify our emotions.

Shame sucks so much because when we binge, we are feeling a physical sensation of fullness and then top it with an emotional sensation of fullness. The feeling can be paralyzing and hard to take action. Once we start associating the feeling with past experiences, we might be flooded with memories of being scolded or feeling bad about who we are. That cognitive flooding gets added to the physical and emotional fullness and the paralysis. Depending on how distressing the feelings of shame are, we may not be able to cognitively process what to do. We rely on those memories of past shameful experiences that are now at the forefront, but they likely were not situations where we managed shame well and so we are left with either continuing to do nothing or responding in a way that just makes us feel worse. Ugh, even writing this feels awful!

If you haven't been able to gather already, I am a true believer that emotions are our body's way of communicating how to navigate the world. If we want to get over an emotion, we have to go through it and experience it. You might at this point say, "Yep, this is shame." If you are highly dysregulated you use skills that help you reduce (not get rid of) some of the physical and cognitive sensations associated with the feeling, and then you process through the emotion. Probably one of the best things to do is to talk about it with someone. Why?

I'll tell you why. Just like our emotions all have universal sensations, they all are our body's way of indicating a need and an urge. Our natural urge with shame is to hide, so when we talk to someone about it, we are doing what's called "Opposite Action" to the emotion. If we are speaking with someone who is validating and supporting to us, we likely will start to experience the sensations associated with support...a relaxation in our muscles, a feeling of letting go, a sense of safety. And by talking with someone, we have changed our physical experience to other sensations with other emotions. That is how we handle shame!

If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, "Dang, I don't have the skills to regulate" or "I can't think of a supportive person to talk to." I would encourage you to seek professional support. They can help you develop skills, build a supportive network, and be that listening ear while you are doing so.

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