Disordered Eating: What We Need to Understand and How to Heal

“Food can distract you from your pain but food cannot take away your pain.” ~Karen Salmansohn

Watching was something I did long before. The Greatest LoserThis is a very popular reality television series about weight loss. I tried to appear like a model for the swimsuits, but instead of hiding in my closet, I was eating sugary candy.

I remember feeling completely out of control over my cravings for all things sweet, and I didn’t know how to stop myself from eating until I felt sick. My life was more about food than supporting the healthy processes that I have in my body. To my “child self,” who wasn’t sure the world was a safe and welcoming place, food was a lifeboat.

No little kid imagines, “Oh, it would be fun to starve myself and see what happens!” Or enjoys waking up in the middle of the night to work out for hours for the reward of being “loved” by those around them. When faced with hardship in childhood, the number one goal of our lives is survival. To do this, we seek ways to ensure that we are in control.

While I did my best to make my life more stable and autonomous, it was at the expense of losing touch with my true self and my inner wisdom. To survive, I had to become. less. I am less of me and more visible to the world, but at the same moment, it is hard to not want to be noticed.

Take a look at your childhood food memories and notice the emotions you feel. Are you over 50? Was there a particular setting in which you had these experiences?

Reflecting on my own story with food, I realize how food and my emotions became intertwined. This was the only way I managed to control the chaos in my house and inside myself.

What appeared on the surface as a “fear of food” was in truth a Fear of fear.The struggle of feeling meant dealing with the pain of growing up where strong emotions were suppressed and intuition was ignored. There were also many crucial conversations that would have been necessary for the maturation of an adolescent.

For example, any discussion around the topic of sexuality and what it meant to embody and express mine, was considered “taboo,” and shameful in the highly religious culture of my upbringing. Therefore, it is no coincidence my disordered eating patterns surfaced in tandem with my body’s transition into puberty.

The changes in my body, at that time, felt terrifying, and the disordered eating served as an attempt to shut down the process of sexual maturation—a means to avoid the shame of being “sexual.”

In my recovery process from anorexia bulimia and orthorexia, I realized that behind any binge or purge was often deep emotional pain. It made it difficult for me to heal and meet the needs of those in need.

Disordered eating was “pain-management.” Albeit not the most effective strategy for coping with distress, but it was the one I knew inside and out.

When I first recognized disordered eating in my own way as an approach to emotional turmoil, it was in therapy. I felt guarded and skeptical about believing that there were any healing solutions in the room. I didn’t fully understand why I was there, aside from being told it was the “right” thing to do to get professional help.

The therapist looked at me with concern in her eyes and asked, as if the answer should be simple, “Why are you so afraid of food? Why the eating disorder?”

Now, I’d been asked that question by many well-meaning, worried adults before, but on this day, I felt an unexpected flood of emotion rise within, and fighting back tears, I replied,

“I’m not afraid of food. I’m afraid my parents will divorce.”

When I finished speaking, it was clear that this was the question that my heart wanted to be asked. “Why the pain?”

Reminisce about your childhood and what role food played in providing you with physical nourishment.

Is food considered a reward for good behaviour?

Have food caused fights between parents? (i.e., one parent burned dinner and the other explodes with anger)

Was food used as a way to “regulate” you—help you “calm down,” feel comforted when you were sad, or numb pain?

Did you find food was more readily available to you when faced with challenges?

Do you remember feeling safe enough in your childhood home that you could express inner pain?

Furthermore, if you grew up in an intense emotional climate, and your primary caregivers lacked the level of consciousness, and resources, to support you in learning healthy emotional regulation, food might have been the only “state-changer” (the only thing to take the edge off painful experiences) available. You had to eat food as your therapy.

Emotions ended up being “fed” instead of felt. You used eating to manage the emotions that were out of your control. Instead of providing your body with healing building blocks, you chose to eat. It will help you to forget your pain.

Hear me when I say, there is no shame if you find yourself here—if you’re still stuck in the cycle of using food to survive your own emotional experience. You’re worthy of self-compassion—to be able to look back at your younger self and appreciate the ways you managed the pain you faced, with the resources you had. Gentleness towards oneself is the first step to whole-body recovery.

Another critical component of healing is giving yourself permission to have the conversations with yourself that, as a child, you didn’t or couldn’t have with others, but longed to. Doing so aids in establishing a “safe” environment within yourself for healing to flow. You can explore all the questions that are important to you.

For me, one of these conversations was about being a sexual being. For you this might mean exploring the confusion you felt when your parents split and the challenges you faced adjusting to new blended family dynamics, the loneliness you experienced as a child because it was hard for you to make friends, or a sense of shame about your family’s socioeconomic status.

If it is a common practice in your family to suppress and bury half the emotion spectrum (as it was for mine), think about how this culture aligns with core values.

How do you envision your future self navigating emotional pain? You have the chance to create a new path from which you can travel to emotional healing. AndGenerations after you

Now is the time to establish trust by accepting all emotions. What is one emotion that you believed as a child was “off limits?” What would change today if you allowed yourself to experience that emotion—to permit its flow through you?

With your heart open, listen to that little voice in you. Watch yourself. Be the listening ear you longed for when things first got “complicated” with food. Only then can you ask your younger self if they’re ready to entertain some alternative strategies, besides food, to help scary emotions move through the body.

Here are some beautiful techniques I found along my healing path that help the body feel more free to express big emotions.

1. Jin Shin Jyutsu- Finger Holding Practice

The Japanese Healing Technique works by calming your energy. Each finger is held for approximately one-to three minutes, and then the practice can be repeated on the opposite hand. Every finger is a symbol of a different emotion.

Thumb- Worry

Pointer Finger- Fear

Middle Finger- Anger

Ring Finger: Insecurity and Grief

Pinkie- Self-confidence

2. The 4-7-8 Breath or “Relaxing Breath”

One benefit of this breath practice is its ability to strengthen “vagal tone.” The Vagus Nerve is the longest group of nerves in the body, running from your brain to your gut, and it is a key component in the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system—the branch of the autonomic nervous system that promotes the resting, digesting, and repairing in the body. The ability to improve vagal tone may help with anxiety and stress reduction.

  • Improve digestive health
  • Increase Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  • The body has lower levels of inflammation

3. Walking outside barefoot

Connecting with our roots, connecting to the ground, and taking in all that it offers can make a huge difference. The ground’s electrical current contains a lot of negative ions. These ions are absorbed into the skin by the feet and then dispersed through the body. Clinical research has shown that these negatively charged ions can promote psychological and physical well-being.

You can use any or all the methods listed to reconnect to your emotions and ground you. Notice the changes that you feel as a consequence.

It is important to establish a safe environment for your inner child so that they can explore previously unexplored emotions freely without being shamed or abandoned.

Disordered eating, like any other coping strategy can help you to find the inner safety that was lacking in your outside world. There are many other ways to provide safety and security without harm, like the ones listed above.

Recovery from disordered eat involves finding ways to connect with your emotions and not numb them by restricting food, purging or binging. Because it’s really not about the food at all. It’s about becoming the friend your body longed for in your most painful moments.

You will notice a transformation in your relationship to food when you give your body space.

Erika Wirth

Erika Wirth, a Body Partnership Coach, supports others in the restoration of health and friendship to their bodies. She’s also the host of the Wirth Wellness Podcast, where she has interviewed experts on a wide range of health and wellness topics including anxiety, balancing hormones naturally, ancestral nutrition, Internal Family Systems, Emotional Freedom Technique, natural conception, and gut health. Thomas Edison State University gave her a BSc in Psychology. You can find her on Instagram.

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Tiny Buddha’s first post, Disordered Eating: How To Heal and What to Learn appeared on Tiny Buddha.

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