pic for article Understanding EmotionsIn the last installment, we gained more knowledge about how our eating disorder functions. We learned that ironically, eating disorders are not really about food, they are about feelings. Some have argued that our emotions are what make us human and distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Whether this is the case or not, it is undeniable that our emotions have a profound impact on our existence.  We are all emotional beings, and yet the domain of emotions is the most difficult to manage.

Eating disorders are closely intertwined with our emotions, and as such it is important to understand and make peace with our emotions so that we can welcome them into our lives as Rumi would have us do.
All of us experience emotions, and we experience them to varying degrees.  Sometimes our emotions sweep over us like a tidal wave, enveloping everything around us. Other times we feel emotions as a transient state, aware of their presence, but still going forth all the same.  In general, individuals who struggle with eating disorders tend to experience extremely strong emotions.

If they possess discomfort with strong emotions, or if these emotions are experienced as painful or burdensome, it is likely that someone will use the eating disorder to try and numb out from those feelings.  The eating disorder provides a quick and convenient escape from these emotions. The restrictive behaviors can literally alter one’s cognitive state, so that they cannot focus on those feelings.  Instead they become lost in the world of the eating disorder, focused on the singular goal of maintaining the restriction at all costs. Deviating from the restriction means having to face those feelings again.  Behaviors like binging and purging have a numbing effect as well. We fill ourselves up with food past the point of discomfort, along the way receiving the neurochemical enhancements that the binge food provides.

But once the feeling of fullness or the guilt associated with eating the “forbidden” foods becomes intolerable, purging both literally and metaphorically releases that tension.  These behaviors become a convenient escape, but they are often hard to turn away from once they have become habit, and they come at a very high price both emotionally and physically. They often leave someone with a pervasive feeling of guilt, an inescapable “catch 22” in which they feel guilty if they engage in the behavior, but also guilty if they do not.  And as for the medical consequences, the high mortality rate of Eating Disorders speaks for itself. Escaping our emotions through these behaviors is so dangerous, so why do we do it? Why are we so afraid of our feelings. Perhaps if we take a deeper look at our emotions we can reduce the need to escape from them.

What are emotions, really? Scientifically speaking, they are basically chemical reactions in the brain.  Yet, they are far more complicated than mere chemistry.  I believe it is more useful to look at emotions in the way that Rumi described, as momentary awareness, as valuable indicators of our internal experience of the world around us, or even as guides along the journey of life.  It’s also important to understand that emotions are a packaged deal. The misguided attempt by the eating disorder to numb out negative emotions unfortunately has the effect of numbing out positive ones as well.  When we learn to see value in all of our emotions, the full range and spectrum, we can let go of the idea that we need to selectively numb from certain emotions.

Sometimes we fear that our emotions will be overwhelming to ourselves or others, and so we repress them and we don’t talk about them and we don’t share them.  This becomes like trying to swallow a hand grenade, our emotions were meant to be shared. Emotions are common to all human experience and so no matter how alone you might feel with an emotion, the truth is that someone else can almost certainly relate to it.   It may sound like a therapy cliché, but talking about our feelings is healing. How can we become comfortable with something that we know nothing about? We tend to fear the things we don’t know, so if we don’t know our emotions, we come to fear them, like a stranger whose intentions we are suspicious of.   By talking about our feelings we get to know and understand them, we become unafraid of them and even welcome them as guests into our lives.

Why do individuals with eating disorders in particular have such discomfort with their emotions?  To begin with, eating disorders tend to surface in a person’s life during adolescence, the period of time when we experience the strongest emotions and are tasked with bridling those emotions to effectively participate in the adult world.  If the eating disorder arrives during that time, an adolescent never really gets adequate practice with effectively managing those strong emotions, since the eating disorder numbs them out.   Through recovery, one can become less reliant on the eating disorder to numb out from those feelings, but in the beginning those strong feelings are foreign to them. It is sometimes like traveling back in time to the awkward, uncomfortable stage of adolescent development, navigating the emotional waters that are unfamiliar to them.

Also, individuals with eating disorders simply tend to be very strong feelers, which is perhaps one of their finest qualities. Yet, these strong feelings are not always easy to deal with. Once they learn how to channel their finely tuned emotional sense, they can have lives that are so rich and filled with the most wonderful poignant emotions.  But for this to happen it is necessary to take the plunge of not using the eating disorder to numb from their feelings.

It is necessary to dive into the uncomfortable feelings headlong and commit to being comfortable with the discomfort. There are many techniques that are useful in developing a healthier relationship with emotions, but the most important aspect is the commitment to do work in the emotional arena. It is essential that treatment address emotions so that those in recovery can achieve mastery over the domain of emotions. We were meant to have feelings, they are what makes life such an adventure, yet we were not meant to be governed by them. The eating disorder tries to prevent a person from experiencing feelings, but what kind of life would it be without feelings. To overcome the eating disorder and reclaim your life, to live a fulfilled and complete life, you must feel your feelings, not fear them.

Written by Cielo House Founder, Matt Keck, MFT. This is the second installment in the #OutsmartED series.

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