The ability to fully experience, communicate, and regulate one’s emotional experience is a skill.
Even so, our society acts as if everyone should be aware of how to do this instinctively.
The result is many children and adolescents developing into adulthood without ever having been taught that they are capable of regulating their emotions.
Instead, many individuals view their emotions as something they cannot control or understand and that they must deal with as best they can.
This makes individuals more susceptible to poor emotional health and more likely to experience mental illnesses such as eating disorders.
Eating Disorders & Emotional Distress
For all people, daily life involves emotional stressors that require effective coping skills to identify, communicate, and overcome.
Those that lack these skills tend to feel as if they are attempting to live life while beholden to overwhelming, unpredictable, and uncontrollable emotional shifts.
Feeling that emotions are uncontrollable “has been linked to experiencing more negative emotions, greater depression and lower levels of well-being .”
The chaos, hopelessness, and lack of control these individuals feel leads them to developing ineffective and unhelpful coping mechanisms, among them eating disorders.
Eating disorders often lead to false feelings of control and safety, numbing emotional, discomfort, suppressing unwanted memories or thoughts, and a sense of misdirected “purpose.”
While this may feel effective in the moment, eating disorder behaviors are clearly dangerous in the long-term and do not serve as sustainable solutions for emotional discomfort.
By the time individuals recognize the ineffectiveness and consequences of eating disorder behaviors, they have become habitual.
At this point, letting go of the eating disorder behaviors as short-term, instant gratification coping skills is as uncomfortable as the emotions themselves, leaving the individuals trapped in a toxic cycle that they do not know how to free themselves from.
Gaining Emotional Awareness
An important first step in helping individuals gain emotion regulation is helping them to become aware that emotions are not something that “just happens.”
Emotions are responses to events in the environment around us and the beliefs, perceptions, and the thoughts we have about these events.
As we develop through childhood and into adulthood, we receive messages that create our worldview.
This worldview then influences our core beliefs, or, the beliefs we develop about ourselves, others, and the world around us.
Whether accurate or not, we often hold these beliefs as absolute truths and they become the lenses through which we view our experiences in the world.
Some of these beliefs that often relate to eating disorders are, “I must be perfect to be worthy,” “I will never be good enough,” “I am not valuable if I am not in a thin body,” and “I’m not deserving of happiness,” “my eating disorder is the only thing I can rely on,” and “using behaviors helps me to cope,” to name a few.
These beliefs lead feelings of hopelessness, low self-worth, insecurity, shame, again, only identifying a few.
For those that struggle with emotions control, they often feel these emotions and act on them without even recognizing they are the result of faulty core beliefs.
Gaining emotional awareness involves recognizing the process wherein core beliefs lead to thoughts which lead to feelings which result in behaviors.
Acknowledging this process can empower the individual as they begin to understand that they can, in fact, control their emotions through learning to control their thinking.
Teaching Emotional Control
After developing an understanding of the relationship between thoughts and emotions, individuals with eating disorders can then apply it to themselves, recognizing the unique way in which their own disordered core beliefs fuel uncomfortable emotion-states and, therefore, eating disorder behaviors.
One way to begin harnessing power over one’s emotions is to use this relationship for recovery, replacing eating disorder beliefs, like those detailed above, with recovery-focused beliefs such as “my body weight/size/shape does not define my value,” “I am not perfect and that is okay,” “I deserve happiness,” “I can feel uncomfortable emotions without acting on them,” “my eating disorder is not the solution, it is the problem,” and “eating disorder behaviors no longer align with my future goals.”
These beliefs can lead to altered perceptions of distressing or triggering situations and empower the individual to make behaviors that are in line with their new beliefs.
The concept of the thought-feeling-behavior connection comes from a theoretical viewpoint in psychology known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is incredibly effective in treating eating disorders.
Emotional control is also addressed in a theory inspired by CBT known as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which teaches Emotion Regulation.
Emotion Regulation is focused on bridging the mind-body connection to reduce distressing emotion states and involves skills such as accumulating positive experiences by infusing every day with joyful moments, building mastery in hobbies to remind oneself of their capabilities, coping ahead to use coping skills daily and increase their effectiveness when they are necessary, properly nourishing the body, and engaging in the opposite of what our distressed mind wants us to do if our feelings do not match the current facts of the situation.
Emotion Regulation & Recovery
Recognizing one’s emotions as controllable and within one’s power is a huge part of eating disorder treatment and recovery.
When one recognizes that they are not beholden to their emotional distress and that they are capable of changing their mood-states and, therefore, behaviors, they become more empowered to actively engage with a life they previously felt wasn’t fully their’s.
If you struggle with an eating disorder and emotion regulation, embrace hope that you can learn skills and a mindset that will improve your daily life and propel you toward recovery.
Resources Vuillier, L., Joseph, J., Somerville, M., Harrison, A. (2021). Believing emotions are uncontrollable is linked to eating disorder psychopathology via suppression and reappraisal. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9:43.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published May 20, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on May 20, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC