By Dr. Gia Marson
Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman believes vivid imagining (or mental rehearsal) is necessary for peak performance in every endeavor. Bowman says “the brain cannot distinguish between something that’s vividly imagined and something that’s real...If you can form a strong mental picture and visualize yourself doing it, your brain will immediately find ways to get you there.”¹
You can use the same mental rehearsal method to recover from binge eating. While neuroscientists are still working to understand the exact mechanisms responsible for the benefits, mental rehearsal is being used widely² — from the neuro-rehabilitation of stroke victims to enhancing the development of skills in novice surgeons.³ And Michael Phelps’ record of 28 Olympic medals shows it worked pretty well for him!
Even if you have not been able to stop binge eating yet, you can ease your path to success by practicing in your imagination. Start with the most common circumstance of your binge eating episodes. What is the exact situation? Picture yourself there with the urge to binge. Do you move from thought to action automatically? Do you struggle with the urge then give in? If you plan it, when does that begin? Where are you at the point of the first thought? What are the first steps you take when you move toward binge eating? What are you feeling? Thinking? It may seem that once you have the urge, a binge is inevitable, but it is not. You have other urges throughout the day that you choose not to act on. Compassionately remind yourself that you can create a pause then ride out the urge by changing how you respond. You can develop a new normal.
Engage your imagination in the process of reaching your goal: having an urge but not engaging in binge eating. Picture three steps in great detail: 1. Start with the actions. What is the first action you want to take when an urge hits? Will you leave home for a walk or brush your teeth? What must follow? 2. Add in healthy thoughts. Which thoughts will lead you to making healthy, intentional choices? For example, if you normally tell yourself it doesn’t matter if you binge but always have regret later, you can now start saying it does matter, I do care. 3. Shift your attention to change your feelings. Which feelings can shift you out of the numbing and distraction that binge eating brings? Maybe you can shift the feeling recall of binge eating to the feeling recall of happy memories instead. Happy memories can change your mood. Familiarize yourself with how you want it to go... the actions, the thoughts, and the feelings. Imagine your ideal response, very specifically.
Once you know what success looks and feels like, start practicing it in your mind. Rehearse the healthy (non-binge eating) thoughts, actions, and feelings moment by moment, step by step. Follow it all the way from urge to success. As you see yourself in this process, feel what it feels like to achieve your goal. Breathe in and experience the sense of accomplishment in your mind. Notice how much more in control you are. Observe your ability to have an urge, stay calm, and respond with new reactions and actions. Keep practicing the mental rehearsal and the positive actions that lead to your desired outcome. If you have a slip, work that obstacle and how you plan to overcome it into your next mental rehearsal. A healthy, controlled response to an urge can be your new normal. Hold on to this strong mental picture of healthy moments that lead you toward recovery.
 Gallo, C. (2016), 3 Daily Habits of Peak Performance according to Michael Phelps’ coach, Forbes (Online, March 24, 2016 at 8:45am).
 Letswaart, M., Butler, A., Jackson, P., Edwards, M. (2015) Editorial: Mental Practice: clinical and experimental research in imagery and action observation, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00573
 Crocks, M, Moulton, C., Luu, S., Cil, T (2014). What surgeons can learn from athletes: Mental Practice in Sports and Surgery. Journal of Surgical Education.