Often individuals with an eating disorder can find it difficult to manage and regulate emotions. Whilst emotions are a natural part of life, individuals with an eating disorder may avoid difficult emotions such as hurt, anger or guilt and can at times, hold the belief that it is unacceptable to express emotions. Other times, individuals with eating disorders may experience emotions as intense and extreme. Eating disorder behaviours can serve a function for the individual by attempting to control or dull these strong emotions.
The ability to manage and regulate our emotions is a key part of our development and therefore plays a vital role in treatment. Your loved one may need your help and support to learn how to better manage their emotions (below are some tips to help you). Parents and carers may also recognise the need to reflect on how they manage their own emotions using the animal metaphors developed by Professor Janet Treasure.
Tips for improving emotional processing
- It can be helpful if carers are able to pay attention to and pick up on non-verbal emotional cues such as going quiet, avoiding eye contact, hesitation in speech, flushed cheeks and teary eyes. Carers should use empathy and compassion to validate their loved ones emotions, e.g. ‘It looks as if you are upset’. This may then open up a conversation in which your loved one may be able to acknowledge what they need in that moment.
- Encourage your loved one to voice what they are feeling in the moment (e.g. ‘what are you thinking?’). If they are finding it difficult to express in words what they are feeling, encourage them to think about the emotion they are experiencing (e.g. anger, fear, joy, disgust).
- Sometimes it can be easy to brush off painful thoughts and feelings or to provide reassurance, e.g. ‘don’t be silly, you don’t look fat!’ However, it is very important to listen carefully to what your loved one is saying in order to try and pick up any underlying messages that they may not be able to express directly. Even if you can’t understand how or why your loved one is thinking the way that they are, it is important to try and accept that this is how they feel at that moment.
- It is necessary to track your own emotions to ensure that you are not over-identifying with your loved one’s feelings or getting overwhelmed by your own reactions. It is important that you remain the carer; this may involve you taking a step back.
- It is easy to become defensive when your loved one is angry, critical, disinterested or distant. Try to react calmly to these emotions. If need be, you can take a break but you need to ensure that you keep any promises you make about returning to the conversation (e.g. ‘I can see that this is really important to you. I am tired right now, would it be alright if we spoke about this after dinner?’).
- It is important to remember to provide positive feedback when your loved one has been able to express an emotional response. For example, you could say ‘Thank you for having the courage to tell me that you are feeling hurt’.
- Remember that no one is happy all of the time. As humans we experience a range of pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to think that your loved one can never experience emotional pain.
- Allow whatever time is necessary to reflect on the emotion in a calm and compassionate manner.
If you would like more support in helping your loved one to better manage their emotions please contact us at BodyMatters Australasia. We can provide one off consultations and ongoing consultations for parents and partners. In addition, we offer parent and partner support groups on the first Saturday of each month.
Stay tuned for our next installment of our parent and carers blog series on making rules and setting boundaries when caring for a loved one with an eating disorder.
Treasure, J., Schmidt, U., & McDonald, P. (2010). The clinicians guide to collaborative caring in eating disorders. London: Routledge
Treasure, J., Smith, G., & Crane, A. (2007). Skills-based learning for caring for a loved one with an eating disorder: The new Maudsley method. London: Routledge.