Interpersonal Emotional Regulation and Disordered Eating Recovery

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Emotion regulation is an important part of the human experience and involves the ability of an individual to control their own emotional state. An offshoot of emotion regulation is referred to as Interpersonal Emotional Regulation (IER), “the ways in which people intentionally engage with an individual to modify the individual’s emotions and how this shapes subsequent emotional, behavioral, and cognitive responses of each member” of the relationship [1].

Both emotion regulation and IER have shown to be related to eating disorders, as to how we handle, control, or cope with emotions, and how this relates to our interactions with others can heavily influence disordered eating ideologies and behaviors.

A recent study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders sought to examine the relationship between these two to better understand their relationship with eating disorders.

Interpersonal Emotional Regulation

Interpersonal Emotional Regulation is not only a concept but a framework through which one can examine how interactions between individuals can impact their emotions. The study mentioned above asserts that IER can be used in both helpful or unhelpful ways.

An example provided of beneficial IER is that “if a person is nervous about a presentation, she may turn to a friend for reassurance, which thereby reduces her anxiety. In turn, the friend’s distress caused by their friend’s anxiety may also be reduced, resulting in a bidirectional, interactional process between the two [1].”

Essentially, one can intentionally engage with another in order to modify their emotions in a mutually beneficial manner. However, Interpersonal Emotional Regulation can also be implemented “inflexibly, inefficiently, or inappropriately [1].”

For example, in the same scenario, the friend may say something that further distresses the person, causing more anxiety for the individual and increased anxiety for the friend that was attempting to provide comfort.

When IER does occur in an ineffective manner, it can “serve as a risk and maintenance factor for psychopathology [1].”

IER and Eating Disorders

As mentioned previously, individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder are often found to experience interpersonal challenges and difficulties with social functioning.

Additionally, studies show that difficulties with emotion regulation such as avoidance, rumination, and expressive suppression “influence risk and maintenance of EDs (eating disorders) [1].”

In the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, study authors considered that, if emotion regulation and interpersonal difficulties are associated with eating disorder pathology, interpersonal emotional regulation must come in to play.

In their theoretical review, they determine that IER certainly plays a role in eating disorders and that continued research “may yield insights into the ways in which interpersonal relationships influence how emotions are managed by individuals with EDs, and how different strategies perpetuate ED symptoms [1].”

Husband and wife supporting each other with Interpersonal Emotional RegulationFrom a common-knowledge perspective, this makes considerable sense. Individuals often turn to their support systems and loved ones to help modulate their mood in both positive and negative situations.

Consider the scenario in the beginning as it may relate to disordered eating.

An individual reaches out to a friend because they are feeling triggered to engage in a disordered eating behavior. The friend’s response may result in the disordered individual feeling comforted and resisting their urges. It may result in reduced anxiety or concern for both parties, or, unfortunately, it may result in increased disordered thinking or behaviors or anxiety for both individuals.

Essentially, how we reach out to one another, and who we reach out to, in order to alter or modify our emotions can make a huge impact on the subsequent emotions of both ourselves and the individual we’ve reached out to.

In the eating disorder realm, Interpersonal Emotional Regulation can be a crucial factor in the onset and maintenance of the disorder and could be a helpful lens to consider when working toward recovery.


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

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 July 31, 2020, on
Reviewed & Approved on July 31, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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.