Emotional Regulation and Eating Disorders

· July 6, 2018

Maybe you have never stopped to think about it, but not everyone has the same ability to recognize, accept, and regulate their emotions. Now that I have put it on the table, does someone who rarely recognizes that something bothers them came to mind?

Or that someone you know has difficulty managing their negative emotions. So much so that most people who know them know that they have a problem with anxiety or sadness. Maybe you even see yourself reflected in these traits. The reality is that recognizing, accepting, and regulating our emotions are capacities that significantly influence different psychological disorders, including eating disorders. . . Let’s discover why!

“The first wealth is health.”

-Emerson

Emotional regulation and eating disorders

First, it should be noted that emotional regulation in eating disorders is different from that of people who don’t suffer from psychological pathologies, according to various scientific studies. On one hand, they are more prone to alexithymia. That is, they have more difficulty identifying and describing feelings. As is logical, when you don’t know how to recognize the emotions you feel, you will have more trouble choosing the best strategies to regulate them.

Let me explain: if you don’t realize you’re angry, how are you going to do something to make that anger go away? Complicated, right? Well, this is one of the problems that people with eating disorders have. To this, you must add another handicap: the use of inappropriate strategies to reduce discomfort. That is, when they are aware that they feel bad, they don’t “handle” themselves in a positive and adaptive way.


“A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit from his illnesses. Let food by thy medicine.”

– Hippocrates

chocolate cupcakes

On the contrary, they try to manage those emotions through escape, avoidance, or denial. These behaviors typically provoke a rebound effect, leading to a chronification of their negative emotions. Let’s see an example. A person with this problem feels bad because they think that if they eat they’ll get fat. So they try to manage that anxiety by restricting their food. In the short term, it will make that discomfort decrease.

In the long term, however, it will produce more and more negative emotions for smaller amounts of food. So, at the minimum, the discomfort will be progressively greater. This vicious circle is also observed with binges. The person eats because they feel bad, but then they torture themselves by overeating so they try to purge. This leads them to again experience negative emotions because they know that what they do is wrong.

Why is it important to improve emotional regulation in those who suffer from eating disorders?

After what we have already explained, the role played by emotional regulation in eating disorders and the need to improve it is clear. On one hand, it’s important to exchange the restriction of food or binge eating (and consequent purging) for other coping methods and more adaptive emotional management (better for the person who uses them).

However, not only must we work to improve the pathological behaviors that are carried out when one suffers from this disease. The reality is that being able to accept, identify, and express our emotions benefits us globally, producing a sense of physical and mental well-being.

anorexic woman

In addition, being able to regulate our negative emotions adequately, through adaptive coping strategies, will make the levels of anxiety, sadness, and anger that we feel decrease. In fact, researchers have found that working emotional regulation in those with eating disorders significantly improves their prognosis.

“Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.”

– Elsa Schiaparelli

Images courtesy of Olenka Kotyk, Nordwood Themes, and Jairo Alzate.