It’s not about the food. It’s about the feelings… What do I do with them?

by Wende B. Conrad, M.A., LPC

Eating disorders are not merely about food and weight. They are about our genetic make up and experiences that leave us with feelings we may have no idea what to do with. We learn to believe that food is our best friend and our worst enemy. We use food to celebrate, socialize, treat and comfort ourselves and contrarily, we use it punish, criticize and define ourselves. Why?

Food is a necessary part of life and is needed to fuel the bodies with which we have been gifted.  We depend on it to live. However, when eating disorders are introduced into the equation, food may also be used as a means of controlling our environment and what is happening to us.  It may be used in hopes of changing our size, our feelings, and/or as a way to be noticed or unnoticed.  It is used to help us cope.  Unfortunately, using food as a coping mechanism can become very unhealthy and even life threatening.  So, what are we supposed to do with our feelings if we can’t distract ourselves from them by counting calories, losing ourselves in food, trying to reach a certain number on the scale, or focusing on our size?

Healthy coping skills can help us manage our feelings and find relief. They are healthy behaviors/actions that help us adapt to a stressful situation. If the stressor is a specific problem and something that can be fixed, we can cope by going ahead and fixing whatever it is that’s causing the issue.  This can be referred to as problem-focused coping and is pretty straight forward. Then there is emotion-focused coping.  We can reduce emotional stress in a healthy way by either embracing and accepting our emotions or by changing how we think or feel about a stressor. There are numerous coping skills that can help us manage our emotions. Some of these skills involve distraction techniques and some involve processing our feelings.

Distraction techniques can be used to take our mind off of what we are feeling.  Any healthy distraction we can use to take our mind off of our troublesome feelings or thoughts can be used to get us through a rough patch. Some find it helpful to read or listen to a book, listen to music, dance or sway to music (as advised by doctor and/or counselor), paint their nails, involve themselves with a craft, clean, organize, work a puzzle, crossword, suduko, etc., watch tv or a movie, draw, doodle, color, blow bubbles, garden, take creative pictures of nature, bird watch, call, text, email or write a letter to a friend to let them know how grateful we are for them, walk or move (as advised by doctor and/or counselor), write affirmations and place them around the home, and/or use breathing techniques (4×4, 5-7-8, diaphragmatic, nasal breathing, etc.).

Other coping skills involve facing our feelings more directly. Talking with a counselor that can help us process our feelings is always recommended.  At other times, we can call, text, write an email or letter to a friend to specifically to talk about what is troubling us.  We can keep a journal to help identify our feelings, name them and write them down. We can write about what we are feeling currently and/or about what has happened that day or even since our last journal entry.  We can journal about how the emotion feels in our body, acknowledge its existence and know that eventually it will pass.  We can journal about things we are grateful for, our strengths, things we like about ourselves and/or our lives. We can write a letter in our journal to the person(s) that have upset us (but not give it to them). We can keep a journal about the unhealthy action we used or were wanting to use and what we had hoped to gain from it, then, write what we did instead and how we feel about that. We can make a collage or craft symbolizing our feeling(s), or simply write our feeling(s) down and what other words or memories we associate with that feeling.

Identifying healthy ways to cope with our feelings is an integral part of recovery from an eating disorder. Finding the strategies that work best for us may require repeated attempts and then will require practice and persistence.  Once we have established the tools that are right for us, we can learn to rely on them rather than the eating disorder to help us cope with our feelings. After all, an eating disorder is not about the food.  It is about the feelings.

Wende B. Conrad, M.A., LPC
, received her B.A. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina Charlotte and her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Appalachian State University.  She has therapeutic experience in a variety of areas including depression, anxiety, abuse, PTSD, eating disorders, and personality disorders as well as experience with cognitive and personality testing and neuropsychological screenings.