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Does Emotional Avoidance Fuel Your Eating Disorder?

The topic of emotional avoidance has come up in many of my sessions lately with clients struggling with eating disorders. One thing that almost all of my clients with eating disorders have in common is difficulty naming, processing, and coping with their emotions. Therefore, it feels more manageable to avoid unpleasant feelings. 

Emotional avoidance can be a difficult concept to understand. Still, it is essential to remember that people struggling with eating disorders often use their eating disorder behaviors in an unconscious way to help themselves feel better or cope with distressing emotions or situations. Avoiding certain emotions is deep-rooted in Eating Disorders - usually fear, anger, sadness, and anxiety. Those emotions can be incredibly overwhelming, and eating disorders provide a way to numb those feelings. However, emotional avoidance ultimately only leads to more distress in the long run as it creates an inability to deal with emotions effectively and can contribute to further difficulties in life.

For example, people struggling with anorexia could cope with sadness, anxiety, or guilt by restricting their food. This restriction could give them a false sense of control. For an individual with bulimia, binging and purging can provide them with a short-lived feeling of comfort, control, or relief. A person struggling with binge eating could use food as an escape or a way to numb themselves.

The reality is that eating disorder behaviors provide short-term relief or satisfaction and fuel long-term feelings of depression, self-hatred, loneliness, or shame.

Feel Those Feelings

Treatment for an eating disorder involves many tools and strategies for helping clients let go of it and reclaim their lives. A critical aspect of eating disorder treatment is learning to identify, process, and cope with emotions in productive ways. Many of my clients struggle to sit with their emotions and ride the wave of those emotions. It's very challenging to let go of using eating disorder behaviors as a way to distract or cope with intense emotions. There can be a fear that feeling emotions will be too overwhelming, and the individual won't be able to handle the feeling.

Avoiding or suppressing emotions is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. Each time you push it under, it pops up to the surface again. In fact, the more you try to sink it, the more forcefully it flies back up. It might even hit you on its way back out of the water and knock you off balance.

emotional man with eating disorder

Many of my clients were not taught how to express their emotions. This lack of expression is dangerous since emotions serve vital functions in our lives. Emotions are signals of things we need to pay attention to. It's important to share with my clients that their eating disorder behaviors are coping strategies they use to regulate their emotions. Although these behaviors have helped them get through some difficult or traumatic spaces, they are no longer serving them. My client's goal in recovery is to learn and process their emotions without trying to avoid, bury, or run from their feelings. Living your life means feeling the full spectrum of emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. 

Try Putting This Into Practice

Answer the following questions:

  1. What emotion(s) are you trying to push down, avoid, or distract from?
  2. Where do you feel this emotion(s) in your body?
  3. What behaviors are you using not to experience this emotion? 
  4. How is this serving you? How is this not serving you?
  5. What would be a helpful way to acknowledge and process the emotion(s) you are experiencing?

Contact Deva

Deva Murphy MSW, LCSW

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Deva Murphy, MSW, LCSW

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Milwaukee WI, 53202

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