“It seems like I’m actually experiencing my feelings, now that I’m no longer bingeing and purging my emotions,” my client in recovery from bulimia shared.
Eating disorders are believed to be caused by a combination of factors including, genetic, temperamental, and environmental influences.
However, one thing that almost all of my clients with eating disorders have in common is difficulty in expressing, processing, and coping with their emotions.
Emotional Avoidance and Eating Disorders
Emotional avoidance, is described as actions that are intended to prevent an emotional response from occurring, such as fear, anger or sadness.
People struggling with eating disorders often turn to their eating disorder behaviors in an unconscious effort to try to help themselves to “feel better” and to cope with difficult emotions or life circumstances.
For instance, for many people struggling with anorexia, their response when it comes to coping with feelings of anxiety, sadness, or loneliness, is to restrict their food. This may give them a false sense of “control” and specialness. For individuals with bulimia, bingeing and purging provides them a momentary feeling of comfort, “control,” or relief. For people struggling with binge eating, eating often feels like “an escape,” comforting, calming, or a way to numb out.
The reality is that eating disorder behaviors often provide short-term relief or satisfaction, and long-term feelings of increased depression, loneliness, and misery.
Let Yourself Feel
Eating disorder treatment involves a variety of tools and strategies for helping clients to reclaim their lives. However, one important element is helping them to learn how to identify, process, and cope with their emotions in ways that align with their life values.
Many of my clients struggle with being able to sit with themselves and their emotions. Often eating disorder behaviors are used as a way to try to regulate or distract from intense emotions.
I often say to clients that trying to suppress our emotions, is kind of like trying to hold a beach ball under water. It takes a lot of effort and eventually the beach ball will fly up above the water with force.
As a culture, we are often not taught to express our emotions. However, emotions serve important functions in our lives, as they are signals of things that we need to pay attention to.
There is a quote that I love from Norah Wynne, which says “Feelings will not kill you. No one has ever died from experiencing an emotion, but people have died trying to stuff them down.”
It’s important to share with clients that their eating disorder behaviors are often coping strategies that they are using to try to regulate their emotions. These behaviors may have helped them to get through some difficult and traumatic times, however they are also no longer serving them.
With treatment and support, people with eating disorders can learn how to heal their relationships with themselves, food, and their bodies.
They can also learn how to express and process their emotions, without the constant strain of trying to suppress or run from their feelings. Part of living a meaningful life is being able to experience all of one’s emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.
One of the great privileges of doing this work is being able to see the light return into someone’s eyes, for them to be exploring their true passions and interests, for their brain space to be no longer ruled with thoughts about food and their body. Full recovery and living according to your true values, is completely possible.
An assignment to put this into practice:
What emotions (if any) are you trying to push down, avoid, or distract from?
What behaviors are you using to try not to experience this emotion?
How is doing so serving you, and how is it not serving you?
What would be on healthy way that you could process the emotions that you are experiencing, i.e. writing, an alterbook, talking to a friend, drawing, talking to a therapist?
Article By: Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C,Founder of The Eating Disorder Center