Binge Urges: The Brain’s Conditioned Response to Negative Emotions

Kathryn_Hansen's picture

Most bulimics report that their binge triggers are primarily negative emotions. In this article, I’m going to discuss why you may be linking your negative emotions to your binge eating, but also why your negative emotions aren’t to blame. I’ll present some new brain research that shines a light on this topic; and finally, I’ll give you some advice to help break the association between your negative emotions and your binge eating. 

An idea I discuss in my book, and that the Bulimia Help Program also emphasizes is: you don’t binge to cope with your emotions. You binge to cope with your urges to binge. Before your bulimia began, your emotions did not lead to binge eating; and after your bulimia is over, your emotions will not lead to binge eating. It is only while you are actively bulimic that certain emotions may become associated with – or conditioned to – binge eating. The reason for this, I believe, is twofold:

1.)  You are told you binge because of negative emotions.

The mainstream view of bulimia today is that bulimics binge to cope with negative thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. Once you’ve learned this idea, that’s exactly what you will look for when trying to figure out why you binge; and because there is always something negative going on in your life if you look hard enough, it’s easy to find a theoretical trigger. The more you determine and believe that loneliness/sadness/boredom/anger are the culprits, the more you will think about binge eating when you inevitably experience those emotions.

2.)  Your brain learned that binge eating is temporarily rewarding.

It only makes sense that when you are feeling bad, you will automatically crave something pleasurable; and in a bulimic, binge eating becomes the brain’s pleasure of choice. Your first binge episodes were most likely in response to food deprivation, and although the episodes might have been unsettling, eating large amounts of food was temporarily highly rewarding to your more primitive brain centers - which drove you to binge in an adaptive response to your restrictive eating. Some of the same brain mechanisms that stimulate eating also stimulate memory, learning, reinforcement, and reward; which explains why bulimics can get “hooked” on binge eating so quickly.   

Furthermore, eating (especially eating sugary foods) increases feel-good brain chemicals, including opioids, dopamine, and serotonin. These biochemical effects are temporarily highly gratifying, which can make binge eating seem especially appealing when you are feeling low. The more you binge in response to negative emotions in order to feel "better" (even though you know binge eating makes you feel much worse in the long run), the more the pattern solidifies in your brain.         

New research released in June 2012 – one of the first studies to examine images of the brain in women with bulimia - gives us a glimpse of how this works.*

In this study, researchers showed women with and without bulimia pictures of a chocolate milkshake or water and gave them tastes of both. Bulimic women who reported experiencing a negative emotion just before the experiment exhibited greater neural activation in the parts of the brain associated with our “reward circuitry,” (specifically in the putamen, caudate, and palladium) in anticipation of drinking the milkshake.

These areas of the brain are included in what I call the primitive brain, animal brain, or simply the lower brain in my book; which is the unthinking part of the brain that reacts automatically because of instincts and/or habit. The researchers conducting this study suggest that a bulimic person’s brain may become conditioned to make a strong connection between experiencing a negative emotion and having a craving to binge.

I believe the two most important things to take from this study are:

1.) Your primitive brain can send out abnormal food cravings/binge urges when you are experiencing negative emotions, and

2.) Neither the negative emotions, nor binge urges have the power to make you binge. 

Regardless of what is going on in your primitive brain, you still have a choice —because of the capabilities of your more sophisticated human brain. Even though the more animalistic parts of your brain may exhibit increased neural activation and automatic urges in response to negative emotions, this is not an indication that you somehow need to binge to cope. You simply have developed strong patterns of association, patterns that you can break.

The great news is exactly as the Bulimia Help Program states: "it’s extremely challenging to change our emotions, but it’s not so challenging to remove the conditioning.”

If you can view the urges as not being part of the real you, but instead as merely a product of some faulty neural activity in your primitive brain, it can become much easier to distance yourself from those urges and to know they have no control over you. If you can realize that whatever temporary pleasure you may get from binge eating isn’t worth the terrible cost of bulimia, it can become much easier to refrain from acting on those urges - even when you are feeling bad.  And, if you can stop acting on the urges, they will gradually turn off, so that no emotion ever makes you consider binge eating.   

Author Bio:

Kathryn Hansen is a writer and blogs at Her book is called "Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn't Work, and How I Recovered for Good

* “Negative affect and neural response to palatable food intake in bulimia nervosa.” Appetite, Volume 58, Issue 3, June 2012, Pages 964-970.   See Psychology Today article for a summary.


Tania's picture


madeleine's picture
I have to say, this was the

I have to say, this was the most helpful book for me in all my years of trying to recover. It acknowledges my mind and intellect as well as my feelings. It gave me the power of choice. So many therapists, psychiatrists and 12 step programs will tell you that you are powerless over your eating disorder. I concede that spirituality is a huge component in recovery and mental health, but I like this book because it gives you the power to override that primordial mind that keeps going back to the addictive behavior.

steph81's picture
I think the more science

I think the more science based thinking and evidence people contribute to this site the better. Thank you, very refreshing .

slowly slowly catch that monkey

lindsay6's picture
I am only partially convinced

I am only partially convinced this is true. I have read and heard all the evidence about why we are bulimic but still so many people go on diets and restrict and do not go down this road. The flip side of that obviously is that many people do just that, hence I am partially convinced. Once when I was at a weight watcher meeting the instructor said during recovery she became bulimic until she figured it out and stopped. So clearly she was a case of someone who developed bulimia as a result of dieting hence it was easy for her to stop. However in my case I have a long history of difficulties in my life before I got to this site and I have had years of therapy to help with that and it did. It was however only part of the equation. I needed to follow this program's SE to gain full recovery. I can also say that not all of my BP were stress related and so again that gives credence to what you have said. i guess in the end I don't think there is any one simplistic answer. I do feel however that what you say is significant and will enhance anyone's recovery.

When you are going through hell, keep going.

Poodle's picture
I am new here, and I have to

I am new here, and I have to say I am really appreciating the intelligent and scientific approach of these articles. It instils me with a lot of confidence :)

batgirl1's picture
I bought the book a few days

I bought the book a few days ago, and haven't b/p 'd since! I had relapsed, but this time, recovery is different. Instead of hoping I don't relapse, I'm NOT going to let myself relapse because I'm in control of whether or not I throw up. I'm no longer giving myself the option to binge or purge. I'm letting my "thinking brain" tell my "animal brain" what to do for a change. I've given my life over to bulimia for 15 years. It's an odd thing that this book could change my entire thought system. Years ago, I dieted due to self esteem and a failing marriage. After years of anorexia, my survival instincts took over and I became bulimic. Even though I'm past my problems and issues, I couldn't break the habit of binging whenever I felt the urge, until now. Bulimia went from a "need" to a nasty habit. I'm now breaking that habit my just saying NO !

Annice's picture
Thank you. I've wanted to

Thank you. I've wanted to read something on this topic for a long while. I've felt for a long time now that bingeing was tied to my emotions just like many others. Will be reading up on the site of the book :)


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