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.”
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.
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.
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.
- Alexithymia in the eating disorders. Cochrane CE, Brewerton TD, Wilson DB, Hodges EL Int J Eat Disord. 1993 Sep; 14(2):219-22.
- 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.
- Alexithymia and eating disorders: a critical review of the literature.
- Alexithymia; Information, symptoms, and treatment.
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