For the last few months of my skating career, I had the same routine every afternoon. I’d leave the rink, drive two blocks down the road and find myself in the Mcdonald’s drive-thru ordering a large M&M McFlurry. I’d then stop at the Vons grocery store across the street, frantically throwing whatever looked good into my cart—and desperately praying that I didn’t run into anyone from the rink—before rushing to the corner store to buy handfuls of candy bars. I wouldn’t even make it into my apartment before the McFlurry would have been eaten, followed by boxes of cookies, candies and a loaf bread. In a bloated and dazed stupor, I’d stumble onto the couch, tears in my eyes, and plop myself down to drown in shame and guilt in front of the television for the next few hours.
This was my routine. Monday through Friday. For nearly half a year.
I definitely knew something was wrong—but I thought the problem was all about food. So to try to solve it, I went to a nutritionist who laid out a meal plan, which I followed day after day. Yet, no matter how precisely I stuck to the plan, I still found myself bingeing every afternoon when I left the rink. By the time I quit skating, I was convinced that the bingeing was completely out of my control.
But I was wrong.
The truth is, while it can feel like someone has hijacked your body while you’re in the midst of a binge, the binge is never happening to you. You are always in control. And, while bingeing carries negative consequences—and you may hate yourself after a binge—it is always serving you in some way.
So how do you figure out how the binge is serving you and how to replace the behavior? Using a chain analysis can help you to gain your power back, and here’s how it works—
Name the Behavior
The first thing you have to do is identify what you’re wanting to change—and be specific. Is it emotional eating in the evenings? Are you struggling with bulimia in the mornings, after breakfast? Binge eating? Or, is it something else? Drinking? Smoking? This is usually the easiest part of the chain because it’s the thing you’re almost always thinking about. While the behavior could be happening at different times, it helps to choose one specific time when you engage in the behavior. In my case, it was bingeing in the afternoons, right after skating practice.
Identify the Prompting Event
Here’s the thing: behaviors don’t happen out of the blue. We aren’t just walking down the street one day and are suddenly attacked by a binge monster. Something prompts our behavior. Always. This prompting event is what triggers the chain of feelings, thoughts and actions that lead to the binge. An example of a prompting event could be sitting in traffic or driving home by yourself after a long day.
While you explore the prompting event, ask yourself: What was I thinking, feeling or imagining during the prompting event because—
The prompting event is always preceded by specific vulnerabilities; that is, things that make you vulnerable to the behavior. These vulnerabilities can be physical—exhaustion after a long day; not getting enough sleep at night; not eating enough during the day—or stressful events—getting yelled at by someone; a tense phone conversation with your boyfriend or girlfriend—or certain emotions. A vulnerability could be the night before a big exam. At that time, you may usually feel stressed and anxious. Your thoughts might be peppered in self-loathing and fear. The vulnerability is what causes the prompting event and leads to the—
Once you understand your prompting event and vulnerabilities, you need to explore the thoughts, events and feelings that led up to the binge. This is your link. For example, my vulnerabilities were being exhausted after training, feeling guilty that I didn’t do enough work and stressed about going home and having to fill the next few hours. The prompting event was driving home from the rink alone and stopping at McDonald’s. The link between the prompting event and the eventual behavior—bingeing—was usually feeling excitement about the impending relief that I was going to get from the food and a need to relax and reward myself—and thoughts that food could do that for me.
Evenif you hate the consequences of bingeing—maybe that’s the shame, sadness, guilt, GI symptoms, dental issues, isolation or self-loathing—you’re always getting something out of it; the behavior always carries a benefit.
So, you must ask yourself: What am I getting from bingeing?
Maybe after you binge, you feel so tired and disgusted with yourself that the only thing you can do is sit on the couch and watch TV. This may be the only time you let yourself relax. Or, maybe you feel full afterward a binge and whole—and food is one of the quickest ways to give yourself this feeling. Bingeing might also be serving as a chance to give yourself anything you want: when you’re bingeing, nothing is off-limits; if you want a certain food, it is yours. Identifying the benefit is one of the keys to changing the behavior.
Replace the Behavior
Now that you’ve finished your link, the last thing you need to do is come up with an alternative behavior that would produce similar benefits that you get from bingeing. This takes trial and error, and it won’t happen right away. However, if you are open figuring out your vulnerabilities and consequences, and are willing to explore new behaviors, you will have the understanding to change. I promise.
Changing an engrained behavior is work. It requires patience and a willingness to try something new. At the end of the day, we all want to feel good and while bingeing comes with negative consequences, it is also benefiting you. Figuring out that benefit and understanding the chain that leads to that benefit puts the control back in your hands. It is a process, but remember: you are always in the driver’s seat. You have the ability to choose a new behavior that will give you the same benefit. Doing this chain will help give you the understanding you need. Trust it.