Emotion Regulation for Eating Disorder Recovery

Dialectical Behavior Therapy as developed by Marcia Linehan (Click here for more info) combines four major components for effective treatment: mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation. Although developed and studied as a treatment for individuals with chronic suicidal thoughts and difficulties in interpersonal relationships, these four elements can be helpful to anyone who takes the time to learn and practice them. I’ve found them especially useful in my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder and I use mindfulness and emotion regulation every day.

Tonight I find myself turning to these skills following a fun-filled weekend that nurtured my mind, body, and spirit. You might be wondering why I would need to use these skills after being so filled (and fulfilled). Well, as long as I can remember, my emotions have felt very BIG to me. (When I was six years old, my mom bought me a book called, “Today I Feel Like A Warm Fuzzy” which taught children “to understand and talk about their own emotional responses”.) Anger felt like it would consume me. Sadness was all encompassing. Joy made me so elated I thought my heart would burst. Anxiety threatened me every day. Each feeling was enormous and overwhelming. Over time, I learned how to “cope” with the feelings by eating until I was so full I was numb to anything but the physical feeling of fullness.

Now, no longer trapped in the cycle of bingeing and restricting, I’ve come to appreciate the gift of being an empathetic, emotional person. I can also “sit with” my feelings, just noticing and being aware of them without judging them as overwhelming. I know how to express some feelings through written and spoken words and how to vent the bigger ones through creative arts like painting, mosaic-making, and scrap-booking. These modes of expression are all healthy ways to regulate emotions which begins with identifying the emotion, acknowledging it, reflecting on it in some tangible way, and ultimately changing it.

Tonight, when my partner was packing up to go home, I felt a wave of disappointment, sadness, and anxiety wash over me. In a flash, my mind had reviewed the wonderful weekend that was ending and looked at the jam-packed week ahead and assessed this moment as “terrible”. (It’s a familiar feeling — the let-down after any holiday, celebration, or social gathering.) I withdrew into the kitchen, dished out my favorite ice cream and put rainbow sprinkles on top. This feeling was NOT going to consume me. I was going to consume it!

Fortunately, the little voice of compassion inside me said, “Breathe, Megan. It’s going to be okay. You’re just sad. You had a lovely weekend. What you’re feeling is normal and it will pass. Put the ice cream in the freezer and eat it when you’re feeling calm.” Thank God for that gentle voice! I was able to put the ice cream back, was present enough to say goodbye to my partner, and then self-soothed by texting a friend. When I felt even more calm, I called my partner to explain my sudden withdrawal and to thank him for being part of my weekend.

And then I ate my ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.

Feelings are not right or wrong. They are not good or bad. They just are. We can all learn to tolerate and regulate them. It just takes time and practice. Check out Marcia Linehan’s website for more information or consider buying some books on mindfulness or DBT.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

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