Emotional Avoidance & Recovery

Emotional Avoidance and Disordered Eating

What is emotional avoidance and how does it impact our mental health?

In general, I don’t understand emotions, and I haven’t done for a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I was happy or excited about something. I’ve always been anxious or just OK or, failing all of that, I’ve been knee deep in a pool of extreme negatives with no apparent ladder to get out.

I feel all the negative or mundane parts of my life so intensely without ever feeling overjoyed, or excited, or loved.

It kills me to type this part because I do think I feel love or loved by others but I’m not sure because I can’t be sure. I can’t remember what it feels like anymore or if I’m just so used to it that it doesn’t matter.

You know?

Yet, if asked back in November 2018, I would have said that I feel all my emotions too intensely, and that’s why I’ve fallen victim to mental illness. I would have said I was weaker than everyone else because I was too sensitive and that’s why I developed anorexia.

It was only during an investigation with a therapist earlier this year that I discovered that it’s completely the opposite.

For the first time in my life, and during my third time in eating disorder recovery, I’m aware of my avoidance and fear of emotion, and how that impacts on my mental health.

Despite having been through recovery twice before the subject of my emotions, and the avoidance of them never came up. I never bothered to do my own research into it because I trusted the professionals to know what I needed. Looking back I probably should have done more for myself at the time. 

Emotional avoidance and disordered eating

I’ve become so resentful towards emotions that I’ve done everything just to pack them up into a box and push them as far back into my brain as possible. I would go to the ends of the earth for the avoidance of any remotely negative feeling. Yet, I’ve always been that person who told other people that their feelings were valid and that they need to let themselves feel their emotions. Meanwhile, I was doing exactly the opposite and have been for the majority of my adult life.

Going back, I suspect this is why I started to self-harm and, eventually, cause myself harm with food. I used, and continue to use, starvation to avoid feeling anything. I’ve put up a wall to keep the bad guys out but in the process, I’ve also locked out the good guys.

Now, at twenty-six, I need to learn to undo over ten years of not feeling correctly or completely ignoring my emotions, and that is easier said than done.


“Avoidance refers to any action designed in preventing an uncomfortable emotion from occurring, such as fear, sadness or shame. For example, a person may try to avoid an emotion through the use of substances or dissociation.

Emotional avoidance is often considered an unhealthy coping strategy. It may be effective in the short-run and provide some temporary relief. However, in the long run, the emotions people are trying to avoid may actually grow stronger.” 

– Matthew Tull, PhD; Very Well Mind.

In times of high stress, grief or just chronic periods of misfortune, I turn to food as a way of coping. Except I don’t comfort eat, I restrict it until I’m only drinking water and coffee, and living off the relief from cigarettes. It’s easier for me to focus all my strength on something I know I am good at, something I have confidence in than it is for me to think about what is going on around me. It’s a way for me to gain control in an otherwise out of control situation, and to suffocate any emotions I might be feeling as a response. Who needs that shit anyway, right? Who needs feelings getting in the middle of all our lives to mess things up?

Turns out we all do.

I’m not alone in this. According to Jennifer Rollin, an eating disorder therapist and founder of The Eating Disorder Center states;

“People struggling with eating disorders often turn to their eating disorder behaviors in an unconscious effort to try to help themselves to “feel better” and to cope with difficult emotions or life circumstances.”

The Link Between Emotional Avoidance & Eating Disorders, Jennifer Rollin

Almost all patients suffering from eating disorders experience difficulty in processing, expressing and coping with difficult emotions at some point. I’m not an anomaly and in fact, there is a name for this phenomenon;

Alexithymia; The inability to recognise and describe one’s own emotions.

The studies on alexithymia which focus on people with eating disorders have found that there is a higher level of this condition in these individuals, compared to those within the healthy control groups. (1-2)

This term was never even mentioned to me until a fellow anorexia sufferer talked about it in a group meeting. She had been informed about it by a therapist of hers during her time in London, and yet it had never once been brought up in any of my three attempts at recovery. Looking back I can only assume that the connection between emotions and my desire to numb them would have been useful to know back when I was sixteen, rather than learning it now at twenty-six.

Alexithymia is treatable, although through different methods than just therapy and CBT. I took it upon myself to try and identify with my emotions myself by pickiEmotional Avoidance and Recoveryng up a book by Karen R. Koenig called The Food and Feelings Workbook. So far I’ve found it to be extremely informative and insightful. It’s full of exercises to help you identify what you are feeling, and honestly, I’ve found some of these very challenging to complete. I would even go as far as to say I felt frustrated at times because I couldn’t correctly identify my emotions.

 


Looking at the people around me, I personally don’t think anyone can handle their emotions or lets themselves feel their emotions fully. Call it a hunch but I think everyone has their own way of coping and a lot of the time it’s not healthy, at least not those in my life.

Humans aren’t robots.

We aren’t built to go through life feeling nothing. Quite often we treat our emotions like rubbish and dismiss them because we don’t fully understand them. We understand our senses and what they are for therefore we accept them, but our emotions are complicated and as humans, we are naturally scared of anything that makes us feel confused or uncomfortable. Quite often what drives humans to do things like starving, self-harm, drinking, gambling, overworking, over-exercising, drugs, etc are complicated emotions and the need to not feel them.

Emotions are there to tell us about our internal world, just like our senses are there to provide guidance in the external world.

We can’t live a full life without experiencing the full spectrum of emotions; The good, the bad and the mundane. Treatment helps pave the way for us to tap into these feelings and gives us permission to experience without apology. It aims to help us identify, accept, process and cope with these emotions in appropriate and safe ways.

Screenshot 2019-03-29 at 21.06.38

References;

  1. Alexithymia in the eating disorders. Cochrane CE, Brewerton TD, Wilson DB, Hodges EL Int J Eat Disord. 1993 Sep; 14(2):219-22.
  2. Alexithymia in anorexia nervosa: a controlled study using the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale.Råstam M, Gillberg C, Gillberg IC, Johansson MActa Psychiatr Scand. 1997 May; 95(5):385-8.

Further Reading;

  1. Alexithymia and eating disorders: a critical review of the literature.
  2. Alexithymia; Information, symptoms, and treatment. 
Emotional Avoidance and Recovery

** If you like what I do please consider donating to my KO-FI fund. I’d like to be able to reach more of an audience so I can potentially grow this blog to be much more than it currently is. I also hope to bring freebies and eventually toolkits to you all as a way of saying thank you for your support.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

38 thoughts on “Emotional Avoidance & Recovery

  1. To read your words, “because I have no confidence in myself in any other aspect of my life” is heart-breaking… I don’t know you and this is the first of your posts I have read but it is easy to see that you are very intelligent and thoughtful person, and an excellent writer with a huge heart that allows you to bare your soul and share your experiences to help others – You have a lot to feel confident about Nyxie

    1. Thank you so much. Honestly, I appreciate your comment so much.

      I don’t view myself as being intelligent or thoughtful, I just see someone with limited emotional intelligence and low self-esteem. I am learning, and I am in a much better place than I was at the end of last year, but I still have a ways to go.

      Again I thank you for taking the time to read this post and leave such a beautiful comment.

  2. I agree with ‘Sick With Optimism’, it really is heartbreaking to hear someone who I can find no outward problems with as a person, feeling so negative towards themselves. Yet I’m a hypocrite, because I feel the same way about myself, even though deep down I know there’s a tonne to be thankful for about myself, I’m not actually that bad of a person, I’m pretty decent… Someone just needs to tell my lack of confidence to sort itself the heck out and get on the same page!

    The hardest part is realising this and then acknowledging it. You’ve already taken such a huge and brave step by accepting this, putting it out there into the world for the rest of us to see. You may not agree, but I personally think you’re quite the inspiration! I wish you all the best in your journey, too.

    Davis | http://www.everythingstartswithtea.co.uk

    1. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. It means so much.
      Thank you for your kind words – I wouldn’t necessarily say I am an inspiration (as you guessed) but it’s nice to hear all the same. x

  3. This was like reading back a personal journal from when I came to the realization that I too was avoiding all emotion, leading to a few different issues in my life including my eating disorder behaviour. Being able to recognize this is a huge step, so give yourself credit for it!

  4. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself Nyxie!
    It is always easier to validate everyone else’s emotions. And so all I’m gonna say is, remember that there are always people who will be around to support you and see you through this journey.
    You are an excellent writer and you pour your heart out!
    You have a lot of strengths that you don’t see.
    Love,
    Shalvika

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. You have really given me a confidence boost in regards to my writing which is always a nice thing. x

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Our emotions can be a truly difficult thing to acknowledge and we don’t ever notice if we are neglecting/ignoring them because so much time is spent on feeling and seeing only the bad, we come numb to it, numb to the bad effects it can have.

    But you are another step forward than you were the last, recover is a process that’s why its called ‘recovery’ and not ‘getting better’ or ‘Well Again’. The fact you are able to realise this now is such a huge step! and I’m so proud of you.

    Keep going because you are doing a wonderful job so far and you have me and all your others followers/readers here to support you 😀

  6. I love how well-researched this post is and how that research relates to your individual experience. We just want to identify our behaviors without having a label slapped onto us, and the quotes that you have incorporated into the post are especially good in helping me as a reader to understand your condition without having gone through it myself. I’m sure it too has helped you in some small way as you continue to recover.

    1. It has certainly helped me in so many ways in recovery, it’s just pushing myself to go against the anorexia nervosa that I’m not so good with.

  7. I love this encouragement to accept and be okay with emotions. I think it is much better to learn to befriend them rather than fight them, even if it takes time and we hit bumps along the way.

    We are only human, after all, but I love being human, with all its imperfectly perfect moments.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with this as you continue to recover! ❤️

  8. Thank you for this post- feels like a profound sharing of your inner world.

    I would agree in saying that it is a rare beast who can comfortably experience all their emotional pallete mindfully. After all, some of the emotions are designed (through evolutionary pressure) to feel awful and this make us change what we’re doing.

    Great therapeutic learning- well done you- we could each benefit from this kind of deep personal exploration.

    I’d agree with others- beautifully researched snd a tender yet powerful piece.
    Thank you again.
    Peace and love,
    Spence 😀

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment. I’m so glad you found this both insightful and powerful. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us with your guest post!

  9. Oh Nyxie, I can imagine how hard this must be. Emotions are so difficult sometimes and I feel like there’s a very fine line between wanting to numb them and feeling them too much. You’re always in my thoughts and I appreciate you opening up to us.

  10. I can’t even imagine going through this! I am glad you are getting the help you need and I hope others do as well. I think it’s wonderful that you are so open in sharing your story, because it can truly help others.

  11. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be for you. But, I am happy that you are well researched, and you are trying everything you can to recover! Best of lucks!

  12. It’s funny that you say “humans are not robots” because my husband is convinced that he is thanks to having asperger’s. He doesn’t FEEL emotion the way that the rest of us do. Thus it would be interesting if he ever suffered from an eating disorder to hear his logical take on the matter.

  13. Thank you for sharing this. It isn’t anything I ever really thought of much, or put a name too, but you are right when you say we are not robots. We are meant to feel, and sometimes those feelings aren’t pleasant.

  14. I am glad that you are finding healing on your journey and a chance to help others through the experience you have had. Blessings to you!

  15. Thank you for putting this information out there! It’s such a taboo, the shame of it, or the lack of understanding or knowing whether or not you have a problem. As a mom, everyone jokes about “kids are bonkers, send wine” and now we’re starting to see that maybe you shouldn’t self-medicate, even with wine. Or a tub of nutella or box of oreos… we all deal with stress and negative feelings differently, if only we could understand how to deal with them in a safe and healthy way!

  16. I am so happy to you are so transparent about this as many are probably suffering like this in silence. Thanks for educating people on this and I am rooting for your continued healing process.

  17. Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery. With the help of professionals you will get healthy again, but it’s important to do it in your own time and rhythm. It’s important to learn how to look at emotions from above and control them, not allowing them to control you.

  18. What an interesting article! I like how informative and detailed it is. Unfortunately, not everyone knows about this topic. I include myself, because honestly I did not know how complicated could be. Thanks for the info.

Leave a Reply