Stop stockpiling your anxieties and worries, and learn how to manage your binge thinking – now. By Carla Calitz

Just like binge eating and drinking, binge thinking can be extremely emotionally, psychologically and even physically harmful. It involves a vicious cycle of fasting, bingeing and purging your worries and negative thoughts. Sufferers spend most of their time trying to outrun these pressing worries or pretending they don’t exist, but eventually they always catch up and lead to an emotional meltdown. Faced with every single worry magnified tenfold during a binge-thinking flood, there’s little hope of ever dealing with these issues constructively. Of course, post-meltdown, binge thinkers vow never to avoid and compartmentalise their worries again – but they can’t help getting caught up in the incessant cycle of binge thinking again. Learn to control your binge thinking now before it becomes a destructive disorder.


Amy Anderson, 35, a divisional manager from Durban, admits she spends most of her time running away from her thoughts and anxieties, and allows them to compound. ‘I guess that’s why I live with nervous tension 24/7 – I don’t sleep properly and my stomach aches daily. I think, in my case, it’s all about avoiding confrontation. Also, no-one really likes to admit anything’s worrying them because it’s a sign of weakness – you’re always trying to keep up this image of being strong and invincible. You think you have to keep up this façade that everything’s under control personally, financially and work-wise. So by running away from your worries it’s like they don’t actually exist. But then inevitably it all comes crashing down – it just takes a small trigger such as a friend phoning. Suddenly you’re in the middle of a meltdown, feeling claustrophobic and out of control. But then you have a good cry and just move on to face another day, and start building up all those anxieties and thoughts yet again Kuhle Belu, 25, a market-research consultant from Cape Town, also falls into the binge-thinking trap, particularly at the end of each year. ‘I just find it easier not to think about issues and usually tell myself that overthinking my problems will depress me more, so to stay happy I must just forget about it and get on with the business of living life, as time doesn’t stop just because I have a problem. So I try not to think about the fact that my new job requires me to move cities every eight months and that I’m very lonely living away from my boyfriend of three years and my friends.

Then, of course, there are family pressures and issues, financial worries, and stressing about the fact that I might have not made the right decisions about my life. So I block out all these issues on a daily basis and my reasoning is always that I don’t want to fill my head with negative thoughts. And it works for a little while until I can’t fall asleep and start analysing my life. Or maybe I’m busy having one of those retrospective chats with a friend over a glass of wine and suddenly I find myself crashing and having a mini-breakdown. I suddenly feel pressured to work out all my issues at once and I pressure myself to find a solution for every single problem. This invariably results in a breakdown, because there is no way I can solve all my problems at once – and some of them aren’t things I can just find a quick fix for.’


There appears to be a biological basis for worry and anxiety in women, and research has shown that women of all ages tend to worry more than men, as well as experience more intense worries than men do. Research also shows that most women tend to focus on what might happen rather than what will happen. So it’s no wonder that some women just try to outrun their worries. But they therefore lose control over processing them constructively, which is when they often get caught up in the vicious cycle of binge thinking.

This suppressed emotionality builds up and eventually explodes, leading to emotional breakdowns and even psychotic breaks’

Essentially, binge thinking is internalising experienced problems and negative thoughts, says Thuraisha Moodley, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg. ‘This internalising could be a defence mechanism where the issue is too traumatic or anxiety-provoking to acknowledge to ourselves. Also, we fear the consequences – that is, the negative impact on others or on ourselves if we acknowledge these issues and attempt to deal with them,’ she says. ‘Further, it becomes a given that once we “see” the problem we then have to do something about it, which is why we usually choose not to see its existence.’ Binge thinkers may trivialise their problems – they don’t see it as a ‘big deal’ so that they don’t have to deal with it. ‘But what you need to realise is that whether you see the problem as big, small or no problem at all, it still has the same emotional effect. This suppressed emotionality builds up and eventually explodes, leading to emotional breakdowns and even psychotic breaks,’ says Moodley. Binge thinkers distract themselves from what is concerning them the most so they can avoid doing the necessary work. Some of the cognitive tools they use to distract themselves include procrastination, compartmentalisation, ignoring and avoiding, says Dr Sherona Rawat, a Durban clinical psychologist. ‘Another factor in this scenario is perfectionism. If we choose to do everything perfectly, we will get nothing done. Perfectionism reduces creativity, flexibility and risk-taking.

You need to be proactive when it comes to changing your destructive and self-defeating thinking patterns

helps us avoid tackling the problem but also makes it near impossible to resolve our problems to our satisfaction.’ Ironically, the concerns and worries that tend to get set aside in our fastpaced lives generally tend to be the most important ones or the ones with the most signifi cant impact. Most women’s overriding concerns are about their relationships with their partners, family, friends and co-workers, their body image and fi nances, says Rawat. ‘And when we have numerous demands placed on us, we often don’t have the time to analyse and assess our worries in a relaxed and calm manner. As these concerns tend to be high priority, they absorb signifi cant cognitive effort when ignored, and this suppression naturally results in a rise in anxiety levels. This rise is subtle at fi rst, so that one realises one is at breaking point only when one is breaking down,’ she says.

This breakdown can mimic a full-blown panic attack in intensity, cognition and physical symptoms such as restlessness, fear, anxiety, agitation, feelings of impending doom, sweating, heart palpitations, tightness in the chest, and thoughts and feelings of hopelessness and uselessness.

Serious psychological complications can also arise from employing binge thinking consistently. These could include serious relationship problems, social phobias, stress disorders, anxiety disorders and mood disorders.

‘Excessive worry and anxiety result in distress in the body, so you can develop joint pains, headaches, infl ammation and so on,’ says Rawat. ‘Stress hormones could also be released, and over time these can cause serious damage to your major organs. In addition, a hyperactive stress response over time can result in a feedback loop that encourages habitual behaviour rather than goal-orientated or solution-focused behaviour. As a result of this we get used to avoiding the road less travelled.’


You need to be proactive when it comes to changing your destructive and selfdefeating thinking patterns. To start with, it’s important to acknowledge that you possess the ability to ‘control’ the quality of your thinking, says Moodley. ‘Doing this contributes more to how you feel than any other factor,’ she says. There are also switch-off mechanisms that you can use to control your anxiety when you’re in the middle of a binge- thinking meltdown. ‘Rein in your anxiety and panic by orientating yourself to time, place and self,’ says Rawat. ‘For instance, think to yourself, “It’s 11am on 1 February 2010. I am in my bedroom and I am well. My body is free of pain.” Make yourself comfortable on your couch or bed. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in and out a few times. Imagine the air going in and out. Now say something positive to yourself, such as “I am strong” or “I am able to handle anything that comes my way, so all will be well.”’

Once you’ve calmed down it’s time to grab a pen and paper, and list what is concerning you. It may take time to get it all down, so be patient with yourself. ‘Now look at your list and reorganise it by removing duplicates or putting it into categories and so on. Then prioritise the list from the most important to the least important. By doing this you make your worries manageable and when you are ready, start working to resolve the concern with the highest priority, no matter how diffi cult it appears to you at fi rst,’ says Rawat. It takes 21 days of repeated action for behaviour to become a habit so keep an ongoing list of priorities so that you’re always up to date with your life. Ensure that you don’t fall back into your old pattern of binge thinking – don’t procrastinate, avoid, ignore or compartmentalise. Instead face your fears and work hard at resolving your concerns. Decide on an action and put it into action. ‘It also helps to talk to a friend you trust, because sometimes things sound different when said out loud,’ says Rawat. ‘And if you really feel that you’re not coping, seek professional assistance – to be psychologically healthy, you need to realise when you’re in need of help. Keep on reassessing your list and begin the loop again. Remember this is your life and you must work with what you have.’

It’s also advisable to incorporate an activity with a spiritual element into your daily routine – meditation, yoga or t’ai chi. ‘Meditation and relaxation are learnt states, so the more you practise these states the more likely you are to recognise tension in your body and mind, and the more likely you are to work to resolve it before it becomes a problem,’ says Rawat. ‘An activity that involves mind and body will also help calm the binge-thinking loop because it involves concentration as well as movement, and involves your whole brain.’

Daily techniques to manage binge thinking

Incorporate some of these elements into your daily living to avoid falling back into the binge-thinking trap: