Eating Disorders Editor's Picks

Handling Emotions in Eating Disorder Recovery

Handling Emotions in Eating Disorder Recovery | Libero Magazine 1
When in eating disorder recovery it can be difficult to acknowledge and express emotions. All of the emotions often get covered up under ‘feeling fat’.

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“I feel fat” is a phrase I have thought, written, or said more times than I care to remember. Several years ago, my therapist handed me a ‘wheel of emotions’ and asked me to find the word ‘fat’ on it.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t there; fat is not an emotion. Nonetheless, I am not the only one who ‘feels’ this on a regular basis.

When in eating disorder recovery it can be difficult to acknowledge and express emotions.

All of the difficult emotions can often get covered up under a big blanket of ‘feeling fat’.

Negative emotions, for me, are uncomfortable. Somehow, I have attached far more meaning to them than they warrant. This leads to feeling overwhelmed and creating destructive secondary emotions while trying my best to push them down or run from them. nov-annar-pinterest

I am now learning to sit with these emotions–to recognise them simply as little messages to myself, like a light on the dashboard of a car signalling low oil or an engine fault.

Despite this, my subconscious still frequently decides it is much more comfortable just to ‘feel fat’. Often, making a mistake or feeling fearful around another person can trigger this intense sensation.


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‘Fat’ is a familiar feeling. My mind thinks it knows what to do with ‘fat’ more than any emotion. This is the reason I frequently paste it over what I really feel. Probably the biggest step in the battle is recognising this.

Of course, this feeling is not always due to a sudden emotion being misinterpreted. It can be slower, coming on more gradually. Some days I can just wake up with a skewed body image for any number of reasons.

For example – if one day I ate one of my few remaining fear foods, the next day I would ‘feel fat’. Logically, it is totally impossible I could have had any noticeable or significant weight gain.

Why then do I perceive myself to have ballooned? What emotion is buried underneath the comfort blanket of ‘feeling fat’?

It could be guilt because I am buying into ED’s lies that my decisions the previous day were wrong. Maybe fear, as the idea of gaining weight is something which still makes me anxious.

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Considering the following steps can help to identify what is causing that feeling and how to overcome it:

1) Take a deep breath and practice being present.

“Fat” is attached to those of us with a difficult history with food, so it can easily become an avalanche of panic and self-hatred. This leads back into cycles of restriction or other compensatory behaviours.

The easiest way to prevent this from happening is to stop the freefall early. As soon as I begin to feel the familiar, panicky trappings of ‘feeling fat’, I say (internally or sometimes even out loud) “stop!”

Being present is awareness; tuning in. Before I allow the deluge of thoughts associated with ‘feeling fat’ to pour out and take over, I take a deep breath and try to halt the process. Even a few seconds of breathing and being mindful is incredibly helpful in breaking the cycle.

2) Look at what is underneath

The next step is to dig down below the surface understanding of what is going on.

This might be too difficult for you at this point, and that’s okay. It is enough just to recognise there is an underlying emotion – even if you cannot yet distinguish what said emotion actually is. Realising your mind is tricking you into ‘feeling fat’ when weight or size is not the issue means you will be more able to resist the thoughts and break the cycles.

However, it is also very useful to be able to identify the specific emotions triggering the situation. I find journaling helps in this. I will write ‘I feel…’ and list all the feelings I can sense in my body.

In doing my best to connect with what is buried beneath my overarching comfort blanket of ‘feeling fat’, I take away the power of the thoughts and the lies.

3) Begin to recognise the patterns

Pattern recognition is a wonderfully helpful tool we have in the fight against our eating disorders.

After repeatedly practising steps 1 and 2, you might be able to recognise a common theme of a particular emotion or situation acting as a trigger. As we become aware of what these are for ourselves, we are able to prepare for the thoughts and feelings before they arise.

When we come across a situation likely to make us feel, for example, criticised and vulnerable, we can know to watch out for the lies of ‘feeling ‘fat’ flooding in. That way, we will be prepared and ready to fight them!

To me, ‘feeling fat’ is now simply an internal sign I am experiencing emotions I find difficult.

My heart and mind are trying to protect me by burying them beneath something more familiar, but I now have the tools to look beneath and not to get thrown off by the immediate sensations and thoughts.

‘Feeling fat’ does not have to be a terrifying, overwhelming response dragging you down. By being present in it and recognising the purpose it serves, you can learn to incorporate it into your recovery toolbox. With awareness and practice, it can be a weapon you turn back towards ED.

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Anna is a UK-based medical student who loves Jesus, strong tea, clear cold sunny weather, tiny humans (especially under 5s), football and singing harmonies at every opportunity. She has been recovering from anorexia, depression, anxiety and self-injury since 2011 and is passionate about the freedom that recovery can bring.

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