Emotional Regulation in Individuals with Eating Disorders

Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Representative for Timberline Knolls and Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation

Eating Disorders exist in a paradoxical universe. They are often defined and diagnosed by certain physical criteria, and identifiable behaviors around food, weight control, diet and exercise.

Yet, as many sufferers know, it’s not really about food and weight, at all. The roots of the problem of eating disorders go much deeper.

In fact, this remains of the biggest and most damaging myths about eating disorders, leading to the commonly uttered (and sincerely frustrating) question, “Why don’t you just eat?”

An Eating Disorder Is a Mental Health Issue

The bottom line is that pathological and disordered eating behaviors are manifestations of serious underlying emotional issues. They are mental health issues, not weight issues. It is a complex process, but pretty much everyone in the field agrees that essential to recovery is learning how to recognize, regulate and healthfully express some of life’s most difficult and painful emotions.

The first step is recognizing that addressing emotional regulation is the bridge to understanding why an individual “acts out” through restriction, binging, purging, or exercise.

Pulling Up Emotional Roots

ED behaviors are often “used” to serve the one suffering, by decreasing affect. He or she turns to eating disordered behavior to keep from pulling up the deeper emotional “roots,” and deal with those face to face.

Instead, they may binge to escape from feeling painful things or avoid feeling at all. They may restrict to pursue numbness, suppress difficult memories or decisions before they even reach consciousness. All of these behaviors serve to unhealthfully suppress the proper recognition, regulation and expression of emotional states.

Finding Recovery, Not Just Behavior Modification

beautiful red head woman on bikeSometimes, an individual struggling with an eating disorder does not learn, through treatment, how to accept, manage and express their emotions in a healthy way, only learning behavior modification and so seemingly are “cured” of ED behaviors. But they only picked off the “leaves” of the tree. Without delving to the emotional roots of the problem, they often find the compulsive or self-destructive methods of coping or suppressing exhibiting themselves in different forms, like addiction, anxiety or other health issues.

The only way to get on a full and complete path to recovery is to pull up the roots and face the painful emotions head on. Often, this can involve working through serious past trauma, for which a professional therapist with a wide breadth of experience in treating trauma is absolutely essential. But even if trauma is not present in one suffering, learning to confront emotions rather than avoid them will involve a lot of help and support.

Finding Growth in Emotional Regulation

Here are a few ways to pursue growth in emotional regulation:

Identify Triggers:

It’s important to work with a counselor or therapist to discover what triggers painful emotions that cause an ED sufferer to want to restrict, binge, or purge. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes not. But identifying triggers is the first step to becoming more present and mindful in the midst of battling the eating disorder.


Many ED sufferers feel that their emotions are “wrong,” “too much,” or perhaps they are too painful. It is important to work through and talk through difficult emotions, to accept anger, frustration, doubt, guilt, happiness, despair.

It doesn’t mean giving them a moral assignment, it just means accepting their presence in your mind and body and allowing them to “sit there” for a minute. Give them some space. Additionally, accepting their presence does not always mean one has to act on them. Which leads to….


cheering woman open arms to sunriseIt is important to learn to put space in between a thought or emotion and action. One can do that through deep breathing, yoga, meditation, or prayer. Focusing the mind on healthful expression, putting space and time in between emotion and response.

It might not work the first few times you feel a craving or an urge, but can work tremendously in a treatment setting and over time with practice.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy:

This is a wonderful tool if one has access to a DBT specializing therapist. One helpful tool is to learn to live in the “and.” For many ED sufferers, life exists in black and white, swings from one extreme to another, and things are clearly right or wrong.

But, that is not real life. Among other things that DBT teaches, it helps people to live in the “and,” rather than the “or;” in other words, to accept seemingly dissonant thoughts and emotional states. DBT Therapy can be incredibly helpful for emotional regulation.

Replacing Self-Destructive Emotional Regulation with Healthful Self-Expression:

In my recovery process, it was hot tea and a good book to soothe anger and lower heart rate. It was the presence of others to combat loneliness and fear. It was long walks listening to music and dancing (not in front of a mirror or in a ballet class, but just on my own), to feel calmness and freedom and to escape.

Learning how to healthfully express oneself is simultaneously the most challenging and most beautiful missions we can set out on in life. The wonderful thing is that when we find healthy outlets for life’s most turbulent emotions, we find that they serve us, rather than us serving them, as is the case when chained to an eating disorder.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What types of healthy outlets are you utilizing for your emotions?

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 19th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.