Eating Disorders and Emotions: A Complex Relationship

Nature Road Through Redwood National Park

Eating disorders aren’t just about food. This might seem confusing because it’s an eating disorder. While fear of gaining weight and obsession with food, exercise, or body image are signs of disordered eating, these disorders are more complex. Disordered eating is often an attempt to cope with upsetting feelings [1].

Eating disorders are not just medical issues that can be solved with a meal plan or gaining weight. Research shows that people with eating disorders struggle more to deal with their feelings compared to those without an eating disorder [1]. Treatment for disordered eating often involves therapy with a mental health professional to resolve the feelings that result in this type of disorder.

Using disordered eating behaviors to cope is a way to avoid emotions [1]. For example, someone who is trying to deal with feeling rejected may use eating disorder behaviors to change their appearance to prevent future rejection. This is an avoidant strategy because it doesn’t help heal the upsetting feeling. Instead, the behaviors serve as a way to regulate emotions.

For many people, unresolved emotional or mental health issues fuel their eating disorder [2]. Some examples include anxiety, depression, trauma, or low self-esteem. However, eating disorders and emotions are interwoven in another way that can make it difficult to resolve.

African American Woman thinking how Eating Disorders are Color BlindThe disordered behaviors can also create upsetting feelings such as guilt or shame. This can create a cycle of using an eating disorder to cope and then creating more difficult feelings to work through. Sorting through the feelings that drive disordered behaviors can feel like trying to solve a puzzle in the dark.

However, it can be beneficial to identify the real issues that lie underneath the behaviors [2]. Resolving the core problems can be a powerful aspect of relapse prevention. If treatment only focuses on stopping the behaviors, then someone may go back to the behaviors if the troubling feelings are still there.

This is not to say that treatment should not focus on behaviors. Stopping the behaviors is important because of the psychological and medical issues that can come from these behaviors.

But if treatment only focuses on behaviors, then a large aspect of the disorder is untreated. For this reason, many treatment programs focus on helping individuals create coping skills for difficult emotions.

Letting go of an eating disorder can be scary for some people, especially if this is their main way of coping. However, replacing the eating disorder with coping strategies and supportive relationships creates space for an individual’s emotional needs to be met.


[1] Christensen, K.A. & Haynos, A.F. (2020) A theoretical view of interpersonal emotion regulation in eating disorders: Enhancing knowledge by bridging interpersonal and affective dysfunction. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8(21), 1-10.

[2] Costin, C. & Schubert Grabb, G. (2012). 8 keys to recovery from an eating disorder. W.W. Norton & Company.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

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 August 21, 2020, on
Reviewed & Approved on August 21, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC