Emotional Difficulties in Eating Disorders and Recognizing and Processing Them

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It is a very human trait to believe that we are in complete control of our thoughts and behaviors. In reality, a situation will occur that results in an automatic thought, corresponding emotion, and subsequent behavior. We can gain control over this process. However, when dealing with emotional difficulties in eating disorders, it is an advanced skill that few people are taught growing up.

This leads to so many going through life feeling out-of-control, unable to regulate their emotions, and engaging in dysfunctional and ineffective skills, such as disordered eating or exercise behaviors, in an attempt to do so. As such, the ability to identify and process emotions is very important in eating disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery.

Emotional Difficulties in Eating Disorders

Research found evidence to support the connection with emotional difficulties in eating disorders long ago. Time has only solidified and expanded on the association between the two.

Most individuals that struggle with some form of disordered eating score high on what mental health professionals call “alexithymia,” having “difficulty identifying and describing emotions, difficulty differentiating between emotional and physical cues, a restricted capacity for imagination, and an externally oriented thinking style (1).”

Many believe that these challenges are at least one factor leading to disordered eating behaviors, as individuals struggle to identify, communicate, process, and cope with challenging life circumstances or complicated emotional states as they arise. Additionally, individuals with an eating disorder diagnosis have shown impairments in “the ability to infer emotional states in oneself and others from social scenarios (1).”

African American Black Woman dealing with Emotional Difficulties in Eating DisordersExperiencing emotions and understanding the emotions of others are unavoidable aspects of the human experience. Difficulty in these areas can result in numerous instances where an individual may fall into ineffective and dangerous behaviors to cope.

Emotions and Treatment

If emotional challenges are an aspect of an individual’s struggle with disordered eating, it is imperative that treatment addresses this. Alexithymia is “predictive of unfavorable eating disorder treatment outcomes (1).”

Weight-restoration and symptom reduction are all good and well, but without also treating the underlying emotional challenges that precipitate the disordered behaviors, they will eventually be faced with an emotional experience they are unable to cope with and may return to old habits. It is possible to teach recovery warriors skills that will increase their emotional capabilities.

Learning the language needed to express their thoughts and feelings, identifying the physical manifestations of an emotion, and developing skills to cope with an emotion that causes pain or discomfort are just a few skills that can be taught. We have more control over our emotions than we think we do. Many people will say they don’t know where their emotions come from, that they “just are.”

While this feels true, most emotions are caused in a split-second by our automatic thoughts. For an individual who struggles to create the emotions they prefer or cope with those they don’t, learning how to control their thoughts can go a long way to improving their emotional control and regulation.

Just as we cannot consider the development of eating disorders without considering the emotional contributors, we cannot effectively treat eating disorders without addressing the same.


1. Vander Wal, J.S., Kauffman, A.A., Soulliard, Z. A. (2020). Differences in alexithymia, emotional awareness, and facial emotional recognition under conditions of self-focused attention among women with high and low eating disorder symptoms: a 2×2 experimental study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8:28.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.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 August 31, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 31, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC