Navigating modern life while living with ADHD is hard. ADHD impacts your ability to self-regulate, plan, focus, remember, and multi-task – all very valued skills in our capitalist and productivity-oriented society.
If you live with untreated ADHD, it can be easy to feel like you’re falling behind. Everyday tasks can feel stressful and overwhelming. Just keeping up with the bare minimum you need to get by can feel like a herculean effort.
Additionally, people with ADHD have less of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brains. Dopamine helps you feel satisfied, content, and motivated. Think of it as a pleasure chemical.
The combination of pressure, stress, lack of varied coping mechanisms, and a chemical lack of dopamine can result in seeking pleasure from outside sources. One such source is food.
The experience of eating, as we all know, can provide a huge source of pleasure and comfort. And as it turns out, there’s a strong link between ADHD and binge eating. So let’s talk about this link – and what to do if you use food to cope.
Imagine this: it’s the end of a long day (or a long week, or month). You’re exhausted, somewhat wired, and your brain feels like a giant ball of cotton. All you want to do is crawl into bed, pile covers on top of you, and mindlessly eat an entire family-sized box of Cheez-its and donut holes while watching Netflix.
We’ve all been there. And the truth is, if you have ADHD, it actually makes a lot of sense to use overeating as a way to numb out and calm down. ADHD has been linked to obesity and binge eating in adults and children.
As someone with ADHD, you may have a difficult time curbing your impulsivity. And if you’re overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed in your daily life, you’re more likely to turn to coping mechanisms that temporarily soothe all that anxiety. Food is one such coping mechanism – and as it turns out, it’s incredibly effective. While overeating is demonized in our society, it actually serves an extremely useful purpose. Food soothes your nervous system, numbs overwhelm, and provides a big dopamine hit in your brain.
Anything that provides a dopamine hit to your brain can become a coping mechanism for you: playing a favorite song on repeat, having sex, flirting, or endlessly scrolling Instagram, for example. But there’s a reason for the comorbidity between binge eating disorder and ADHD: food is often quick, readily available, and easy to hide.
I’m going to come right out and say it: using food as a coping mechanism to self-soothe does not make you bad, weak, or gluttonous. It just makes you human.
From an evolutionary standpoint, being drawn to rich, nutrient-dense foods is why we’re all here. It’s how people have continued to survive and mate for millennia. Your brain’s goal is to keep you alive, and overeating is one way to ensure survival.
The problem arises when using food to cope is your only self-soothing tool. Binge eating can come with a lot of shame and self-loathing. Furthermore, it isn’t a healthy way to regularly deal with your stress, because it doesn’t get to the root of your problems. It can just make your problems feel bigger. The stigma of being overweight or having an eating disorder can increase mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Finding freedom from binge eating disorder and ADHD won’t be a quick fix. But with time and patience, you can learn to soothe your nervous system and find healthier ways of coping with your underlying stressors. Here are three ways for you to begin finding healing.
1. Don’t diet.
Diets can send your body into survival mode. Restriction of any kind can make you more prone to binges. This includes mental restriction, like thinking, “I shouldn’t eat any dessert this week.”
Your body considers a diet to be a life-threatening famine, and your brain will do everything it can to make sure you get more food. That means the more you restrict, the more likely you are to binge. Your brain and its desire to keep you alive will always outweigh your willpower. For people with a history of dieting, even the mere thought of a diet can trigger a binge.
If you have a history of restricted eating or eating disorders, you may need to see a binge eating specialist, doctor, or therapist in order to get the help you need to stop the binge eating cycle.
2. Get comfortable with hard emotions
Practice emotional regulation regularly. The more comfortable you get with difficult emotions, the more you’re able to self-soothe without needing to binge on food.
Overeating and ADHD can be a tricky combination to cope with, because of the associated shame and stigma with both.
But by dealing with and processing your difficult emotions, thoughts, and feelings in real time, you’ll be able to find more understanding, compassion, and grace for your experiences.
3. Find healthy coping mechanisms to help you manage your ADHD and anxiety
In order to stop binge eating, you need to get to the root of the relationship between your ADHD and binge eating. Finding healthy coping tools to navigate your ADHD and anxiety will help you treat the underlying issues at play.
These coping tools include practicing effective stress relief, finding ways to plan and organize your day that result in less overwhelm, and learning to regulate your nervous system.
If you have ADHD and binge eating issues, you’re not alone – and you don’t have to deal with it on your own.
If you want help learning how to break this cycle, consider therapy. I’ll help you work through your challenges and come up with a plan to address your habit of overeating.
You’ll learn to navigate difficult experiences, use healthy strategies, and find coping mechanisms that work for you. Together, we’ll treat the underlying ADHD and anxiety you’re experiencing.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.