Inside Look

Navigating Emotions in Bulimia Recovery: A Compassionate Approach

bulimia recovery Nov 16, 2023

Let's talk emotions, aka feelings!


Dealing with the challenge of expressing emotions can be quite the journey. While we might not be able to change our inherent nature or rewrite our past, we can certainly learn how to cope with our thoughts and feelings in a more constructive manner. It's crucial to understand that anxiety often plays a significant role in bulimia and recovery. As you progress in your recovery, you might find that your emotions intensify, potentially making you feel even more anxious or unsettled. This phenomenon is understandable, given that bulimia may have acted as a shield, masking many of your true feelings. However, it's essential to recognize that these emotions will eventually surface, and although the initial journey may be challenging, there is a brighter future waiting for you. Learning to accept and endure your emotions is a vital step toward reaching that light.

Initially, embracing your feelings might seem straightforward. When I embarked on my own recovery journey, I too believed that I had a strong grip on my emotions, considering myself emotionally intelligent. But as it turned out, I was mistaken. I had subconsciously chosen which emotions to allow myself to feel, often disregarding those that made me uncomfortable, such as guilt, regret, and exhaustion. I was always quick to forgive others, but self-forgiveness proved to be a tougher nut to crack. Additionally, I had a tendency to overwork, overcommit, and neglect my need for rest. When I stopped these behaviors, a wave of guilt, regret, and fatigue washed over me. So, if you're experiencing a whirlwind of emotions, know that you're not alone.


Exploring Your Emotions: Take a Moment

Think of your emotions as visitors – they come and go. Some are welcome guests, and you'd love for them to stay, while others overstay their welcome. Every emotion has a purpose, and it's essential to acknowledge them as a gracious host would. But the key is not to react immediately, especially when dealing with emotions you'd rather not confront. This is where the pause comes into play. Take a moment to get curious about why these feelings are there. Pay attention and examine your thoughts. By doing this, you'll gain insight and learn to navigate difficult moments without resorting to your bulimia behaviors. It's also worth noting that your emotions are a response to your thoughts, which is why checking in with your thoughts is equally important.

The philosophy of examining your thoughts, to then understand your emotions, is not just an idea I am presenting. Let me introduce you to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), in case you have never heard of it. 

According to The American Psychological Association (APA), “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness. Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications. It is important to emphasize that advances in CBT have been made on the basis of both research and clinical practice. Indeed, CBT is an approach for which there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change. In this manner, CBT differs from many other forms of psychological treatment.

CBT is based on several core principles, including:

  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.”


Assessing the Physical Component

Did you know that all emotions come with a physical component? A powerful technique for understanding and managing your emotions is to truly experience them. Once you've acknowledged your feelings, you can employ various physical coping methods to help alleviate the intensity of these emotions. Take anxiety, for instance. Most people can identify the physical symptoms like a racing heart and shortness of breath. Raising your arms above your head can help lower your heart rate and make breathing easier, effectively reducing anxiety. As you become more attuned to your physical symptoms, you may also notice subtler sensations, such as a slight warmth when you're anxious. Placing a cool washcloth on your forehead or the back of your neck can help alleviate this discomfort. Here's another example: when I believe I've made a mistake, my stomach tightens, and I feel a lump in my throat, even for minor errors like a typo in a social media post. Taking a sip of cold water helps me calm my physical reactions, allowing me to address any necessary corrections.

In summary, many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to emotions without taking a moment to pause. We often resort to masking our feelings rather than truly experiencing them. Part of the recovery process involves realizing that you will be okay, even when confronted with intense emotions and discomfort. Equipping yourself with the right tools can make this journey smoother. In our next segment, we'll delve into the art of expressing your emotions.


Expressing Emotions: Taking Action

Throughout my personal recovery journey, I came to understand that I'm what some might call a "super feeler." I experience emotions deeply. Initially, I regarded this as a weakness and even humorously claimed that bulimia was easier than dealing with these emotions. But over time, I realized that my capacity to feel was a gift. This revelation occurred as I learned to identify my emotions and express them clearly. Let's start with the identification process. Below this article, you'll find an Emotions Wheel, a helpful tool for reconnecting with your emotions. People with eating disorders often find themselves disconnected from their true feelings.

Reconnecting begins with identifying and discussing these emotions, a process that aids in accepting and diffusing them. Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel coined the phrase and philosophy of "name it to tame it," emphasizing the importance of using language to bridge the gap between our thoughts and emotions. It's crucial to use "I feel" statements rather than "I am" statements because you are not defined by your feelings. You are not your emotions. Instead of saying, "I am sad," say, "I feel sad." This subtle shift alters the meaning and reinforces the idea that what you say holds significance. Whether it's internal self-talk or external communication, your choice of words matters.

Now, when it comes to expressing your emotions, it's a personal journey, and I encourage you to experiment. To my surprise, I discovered a knack for writing poetry, and opening up to someone I trust always proved to be a comforting outlet.

Here are the top five forms of expression that can help:

  1. Journaling: If you enjoy writing, your pen can become your best friend. In an age of extensive digital communication, studies have shown that the act of physically writing fosters greater expression and creativity.
  2. Reaching out: Talk to someone you trust, as this can be incredibly cathartic.
  3. Music: Whether you're listening to it, creating it, or doing both, music can be a powerful medium for expressing emotions.
  4. Dance and Movement: Expressive movements, such as dancing, can help you convey feelings in a non-verbal manner.
  5. Visual Arts: Engaging in activities like drawing and painting can provide a creative channel for expressing emotions.

In closing, remember: your path to emotional wellness is a profound journey of self-discovery. Embrace your feelings, understand their physical manifestations, and express them in ways that truly resonate with you. Cultivating these skills is your key to moving closer to a state of lasting emotional well-being.


With Love & Light,

Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee is a Certified Eating Disorder Recovery Coach with four professional certifications, including one from the esteemed Carolyn Costin Institute. Since 2016, she has run a private practice currently located in Dallas, TX, assisting clients globally along with mentoring newer recovery coaches.

Posted on November 16th, 2023.

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Resource Credit: American Psychological Association