Emotional Avoidance & Recovery

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

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

For a long time, I didn’t understand my own emotions. The first draft of this very post stated “In general, I don’t understand emotions, and I haven’t for a 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.” This was written in 2019, a mere two years ago.

I was struggling with a relapse at the time, and the pressure to get better quickly was intense. Where this pressure was coming from, I’m not sure. All I knew was that I needed to get better in order to be a ‘decent member of society‘ again. To me being sick meant I was useless to everyone including myself.

“I feel all the negative or mundane parts of my life so intensely without ever feeling overjoyed, or excited, or loved.” Chloe, 2019.

If you’d asked in November 2018, I would’ve said that I feel all my emotions too intensely. That’s why I’ve fallen victim to mental illness. I would’ve 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 in early 2019 that I discovered that it’s completely the opposite. It was then, for the first time in my life, and my third time in eating disorder recovery, that I became aware of my avoidance and fear of emotion. 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. 

“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 encouraged other people to feel their feelings. I was the one screaming ‘your feelings are valid’ from the rooftops! 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’d put up a wall to keep the bad feelings out but in the process, I’d also prevented the good feelings from getting in.


“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 chronic periods of misfortune, I turned to food as a way of coping. Even in my current stage of recovery, I still find myself reaching for old coping mechanisms. Only this time, I’m not giving in. But why is my first reaction to adverse situations or feelings to starve myself? It’s easier for me to focus all my strength on something I know I’m good at. Something I have confidence in! It’s an easy way for me to gain control in an otherwise out of control situation. Not only that, but it helps bury the feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. 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.

Or the inability to recognise and describe one’s own emotions. Studies on alexithymia focusing on people with eating disorders found that there’s a higher level of alexithymia 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.

Emotional Avoidance and Recovery

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 picking 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.


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 therefore we accept them, but our emotions are complicated. As humans, we’re naturally scared of anything that makes us feel confused or uncomfortable. Quite often what drives humans to starve, self-harm, drinking, 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.


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. 

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Emotional avoidance and disordered eating

93 comments

  1. Emotions has always been a part of our life, may it be happiness or sadness. It will be always up to us on how we could deal with it. But sometimes, dealing with them is really hard. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. One thing i have learned in my 33 years on planet earth, emotions are unavoidable and you need to find a way to deal with them.

  3. I’m glad that you have found someone who can help you cope with your emotions. I have gained a lot of weight in recent years because I tend to eat my feelings. Hopefully, now that I recognize this, I can get some help and get healthy (physically and emotionally.)

  4. I think that the fact that you are able to write and share your story so it can help others is a wonderful thing you are doing, even though I know it must be hard to do

  5. This is such a wonderful post. I can relate a bit to this myself. Emotional health sure is really important too. I’m glad that you shared this with us.

  6. I can’t believe the subject of your emotions and avoidance of them never came up in the previous two times you were in eating disorder recovery! That’s shocking and doesn’t say much for those that were supposed to be helping.

  7. This is very interesting to read. I can relate to this. I think sometimes we are just so bombarded with things. It can be easier to just be numb to everything. I can feel depressed and go to work and have to put on a fake smile all day for coworkers and customers.

  8. I agree. It’s acceptable to feel what we feel for the moment. Whatever it is. We’re humans.

  9. Emotions has always been a part of our lives. And sometimes it’s really hard to deal with them especially the negative ones. Thank you for sharing this part of you with us.

  10. Very inspiring story to read. I sometimes avoiding my emotions and I think I need to work it out that. I find your post very encouraging and helpful, thank you for sharing your story.

  11. How wonderful of you to share your story. Processing emotions in a healthy way is vital. It took years in therapy for me to understand that.

  12. It’s funny how emotional avoidance isn’t something we tend to think about much. No pun intended! Until I read your post, I always knew that I would throw myself into work or a project when I wanted to avoid thinking about something that was difficult emotionally. But it’s good to pause and ask why. This has been very enlightening. Thank you.

  13. Rather it be a disorder, an addiction or a mental health issue, emotions and the ability to identify and face your emotions is so important! I Really struggle with this every day! Thanks for sharing your own story.

  14. I really love your content with emotional avoidance. It is very important to understand what people with eating disorders go through. The facts and details really paint new knowledge that I did not know before. I learned a lot. Amazing article!!!!

  15. Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. I’m so glad you’ve been able to learn from my blog.
    Thank you also for being so honest. Wishing you well. x

  16. You are brave enough in sharing this. I think avoidance will not really help, it’s just a short-term relief. I hope and pray that you will completely get through it.

  17. I cannot imagine how you must feel but you are a great writer and very brave for sharing your troubles with emotions. I am the exact opposite- I am highly emotional and that too causes a lot of heartache too! Meditation has helped me keep it in control and be happy and feel loved .

  18. I love this. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder my whole life. Recovery is definitely a process.

  19. I can relate to this so much. Humans are not robots. I’ve been trying to express my emotions more as well. Like anyone, I get sad or whatever but sometimes I am not the best as expressing.

  20. This is such valuable information. Mental illness is beyond difficult, and any navigation tips are helpful.

  21. As a teacher, of health and physical education, watching someone struggle with mental illness is so tough. I just want to reach out and make everything better; thoughtfulness is a beautiful trait to have and it’s apparent that you’re on top of that by this post. Keep pluggin’ along, asking the hard questions, and figuring yourself out along the way.

  22. It’s funny that you mention humans as not being robots because my husband always claims to be one because he has asperger’s and doesn’t understand human emotion. HOWEVER, I know he has emotions and he feels them, he just doesn’t understand them and feels them in a different way than someone “normal” does. But I personally don’t believe in the word NORMAL because who and what measures NORMAL? For me? I have to admit, I am really good at understanding my emotions. I take notes of how.I am feeling and when and then try to figue out why and generally I figure it ou! ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. Emotions are sometime difficult; I really cannot imagine this for you. Be friend than fight is good, your article is very much inspiring this will help so many readers.

  24. Thanks for sharing this with the world.Your message will indeed help others. I’ve battled with mental illness myself and can totally relate with your earlier feelings. I’ve always felt too much. Mine are not one sided like yours, but the whole spectrum, too much. Too happy, excited, nervous, sad, angry, scared. I feel like I sabotage many relationships because of it. Just knowing we are not alone in this world is a lot. Your candid writing is both beautiful and heartbreaking, but your voice shared is much appreciated <3

  25. I used to use my emotions in a very negative way in the past.This attitude kept my life on hold for years. Fortunately, I’m doing better now, but I’m a few years behind other people. I love this post! ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. I used to feel too much emotions in the past, and I mean both happy and sad. As I have aged, Iโ€™ve learned to regulate my emotions. I believe that itโ€™s normal for emotions to wane down through time, this is because we keep learning about the realities of life every year. We need to keep doing the balancing act.

  27. I’m definitely using food as a coping mechanism right now. I recognize it but haven’t figured out how to stop yet. It’s a really scary time.

  28. Wow! Our emotions are powerful and we can use them in good and bad ways. I have spent a lot of time working though my emotions, triggers, and coping mechanisms. Valuable post!

  29. I’ve learned a ton since I’ve started reading your blog. For me, it was overeating…but I didn’t realize that overeating was a way for me to cope or do something while I was stressed. I think the hardest part with food is that it is one of those things you need to do to survive, so it’s one of those things that are easy to ignore (in a case like mine). It was the opposite for me when I was younger. I would control eating as a way to control life. Thanks for putting this all out there. I think there are more people out there who may not realize they also have a complicated relationship with food.

  30. 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.

  31. It’s so hard because dieting etc has become so ingrained in our society. We’re picking up bad habits and our kids are doing the same.

  32. They are very complicated, it’s in no way easy to try and change our relationship with food. When I’m distressed I tend to avoid food.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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!

  36. 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!

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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!

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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!

  43. 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 ????

  44. 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! โค๏ธ

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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 ๐Ÿ˜€

  48. 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

  49. 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

  50. 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!

  51. 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

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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

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