People with eating disorders are often said to be unable to regulate their own emotions well. When any negative emotion arises (stress, anxiety, sadness, etc.) people with eating disorders immediately turn to negative coping skills like restriction, bingeing, drinking, or cutting, because of an inability to tolerate mental pain and a lack of appropriate coping skills.
Obviously, this isn’t true for everybody, but talk to a lot of folks with eating disorders and they’ll confirm that that’s accurate, at least to some degree. I can confirm, too. My inability to tolerate painful emotions is what has time and time again sent me into downward spirals of depression, self-loathing, and even suicidality.
SO, days, months, and years deep into eating disorder recovery, here’s my question: how do you cope with sadness without letting it (metaphorically or perhaps literally) kill you?
This morning I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I felt sad, and it sucked. Here’s the thing, though, which might be a bit unusual. As soon as I felt sad, I began to feel the beginning of the “spiral.” I thought about self-harming. I thought about restricting. I thought about skipping my meetings and classes to lie in bed and cry all day, eating cookies and binge-drinking. My emotions escalated so fast that it was unbelievable, overwhelming, and frightening. And that’s how it always goes.
In the past, I would succumb to the negative thoughts and the harmful behaviors, because I truly did not know any better. Urge to self-harm… why not? Urge to binge because of emotional pain… well, I’d rather not, but what else do I do?
About 8 months ago now I took a meditation class which went on for several weeks. One of our exercises was to practice sitting with our emotions, whatever they may be, without taking action against them. It was horrible, and wonderful. Never before had I realized that being sad was OK. It was a transient state. It was painful, but I was not going to die.
Today I felt sad and thought about letting the pain spiral out of control like it usually does. Instead I made a plan:
- Drink some coffee, extra hot.
- Put on soft pants.
- Make the bed.
- Call mom.
- Listen to some music.
- Just be sad.
Today I didn’t cut. I didn’t hit my head against the wall. I ate mostly regular meals. I didn’t go to the liquor store. And I didn’t let the self-loathing thoughts consume me.
For me, one of the most important parts of recovery has involved learning how to deal healthily with emotions, and the first step has been to learn that negative emotions are okay. They are normal. It seems like a ridiculously small step and quite obvious, but it’s taken practice, care, and a lot of strength to just sit with pain and not externalize it in any way.
So those of you struggling with self-harm or other ways of managing pain that are harmful, including disordered eating, try accepting the pain for just a moment. Then another moment. And another. See how long you can sit with it until you scratch the itch– and maybe next time, you won’t have to.