Learn to Deal with Emotions
Freedom from Eating Disorders, LLC
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Christian Eating Disorder Recovery Course
Learn to Deal with Emotions
At the conclusion of this lesson, you’ll have insights to help you change your perspective on emotions as well as tips for healthy ways to express them.
I was terrified to let my emotions surface, but eventually it was healing to let them out. And it was healthy for me to learn how to manage my emotions. May the insights and tips in this lesson help usher you into similar emotional freedom.
What do you do to identify and express your emotions? Have you found some healthy outlets, or do you tend to keep your feelings locked inside? As you are probably already aware, the inability to deal with emotions is often one of the cornerstones of an eating disorder. For example, do you purge? If so, it may be an attempt to get rid of inner pain. Do you binge eat? If so, perhaps you turn to food when lonely or sorrowful in an effort to fill emotional voids.
You may not even know what specific emotions you’re feeling, but there’s such a bundle of them that they’re scary and overwhelming. It may not be easily recognizable, but food-related behaviors are like an anesthesia for inner pain. For example, if you engage in food-related behaviors and focus on body image issues, you avoid dealing with your emotions. You can keep them buried so you don’t have to feel them. This numbness may feel temporarily satisfying, but like any anesthesia, the relief wears off in time. Eating disorder behaviors aren’t a permanent solution, and they don’t resolve emotional issues.
What happens to unexpressed emotions? They don’t vanish; they build up. And when they accumulate, the idea of allowing them to surface can be so overwhelming that it’s even harder to suppress them. The struggle to bury or anesthetize even more feelings leads you to more food-related behaviors. It’s a monstrous and dangerous cycle.
You may not have had the opportunity to learn healthy ways to process your emotions. Perhaps you were taught to stuff everything inside. You might have been criticized for expressing your feelings. It will take time to untangle your beliefs about emotions and learn how to deal with them, but it’s important to take the time you need to address this vital part of recovery. Below you’ll find insights to help you examine and adjust your perspective about emotions as well as tips to help you express your feelings.
Perspective about Emotions
What is your attitude toward emotions? Do you think your inner responses make you weak? Do you deem emotions irrelevant? Does it seem important to keep everything hidden inside? Are you afraid of your feelings? These are common attitudes. But if you change these beliefs, you’ll take a step toward breaking free of food-related behaviors.
- Realize that emotions don’t make you weak; they make you human. It’s okay, and even healthy, to feel. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). If even the Savior of the world can cry, so can you.
- You were made in God’s image, and that includes your emotions. He made you as an emotional being.
- Remember that when you shut off your emotions, you not only suppress negative feelings, but you also deny yourself positive ones. By avoiding what’s difficult, you not only prevent yourself from healing, but you also rob yourself of many good feelings.
- Recognize that if you bury your feelings, they won’t just go away. Hiding emotions is like sealing in hurt, and that ongoing pain will continue to drive you to food-related behaviors.
- Learn how to identify your emotions. That’s the first step in dealing with them. Find a tip on how to do this in the homework section below.
- Give yourself time. If you’re used to repressing your feelings, it will take practice to learn how to deal with them in healthy ways. Also, be aware that it can take emotions time to “catch up.” In other words, once you change your attitude about something, your emotions may not instantly respond. You may still need to express those feelings and heal from them. Furthermore, when you try something new, it takes time to adjust. So be patient with yourself and take it step by step.
- Know that your thoughts affect your feelings and behaviors. In other words, you’re going to feel and act according to what you believe. If you have negative thoughts such as, “I don’t matter,” or “I don’t deserve better than to have this eating disorder,” it only stands to reason that you’re going to feel badly about yourself. Therefore, while learning healthy ways to release your feelings, also work on changing your thoughts – about yourself, God, recovery, and even emotions. For more on this topic, delve into the Change Your Thoughts lesson.
- Understand that you don’t have to be afraid of feelings. They can feel more and more frightening the longer you keep them inside. In time, however, you can learn to manage your emotions so they don’t feel as scary anymore.
- See that emotions are relevant. They can have a place in your life as indicators of your thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Pay attention to them and notice if they reveal troublesome thoughts you need to change, problems you need to address, or areas where you need to grow. For example, you might feel anger easily. This might be because you’re bitter toward someone and haven’t yet forgiven this person. In this case, the anger reveals an issue you need to resolve.
- Learn that not living by your emotions doesn’t mean you have to view them as irrelevant and ignore them. In fact, the more you ignore them, the more they can control you. Ultimately, you may end up living even more by your emotions if you disregard them. They remain inside, where they can affect your decisions and behavior. Once you express them, you lessen some of their influence.
- Keep in mind that having negative emotions doesn’t make you a bad person. There’s no need to feel guilty or berate yourself over what you feel. Accept these gut reactions and express them.
- Take into account that even though it may be painful to release your feelings, letting them out will eventually diminish them and their effects on you. Expressing your emotions, even though it may be agonizing at the time, is a path to healing. This may be a long process, but it’s ultimately rewarding.
- Acknowledge that feelings come and go. As deeply as you can feel certain emotions and as much as they seem permanent, those feelings can change. They won’t necessarily always hold you in their grasp.
- Contemplate that just like negative feelings can leave, positive feelings can come. Emotions can change. Even if you haven’t felt anything positive for a long time, it doesn’t mean you won’t. As you release the anguish, and as you change your thoughts, you might notice positive emotions begin to seep in.
- Consider that sometimes you’ll need to just sit with your feelings. You’ll have to let yourself feel them so they don’t build up and hurt you even more– because they will. They already have, and they’ll do even more damage if left unaddressed.
- Be aware that you don’t always have to know what you feel. Sometimes so many feelings get jumbled together that you can’t unscramble them all. Don’t let that stop you from releasing them, though. For now, you don’t have to understand what caused your feelings in order to express some of them. It’s okay to cry without knowing why. It may take time to get in touch with your emotions. In the long term, you’ll benefit from identifying what you’re feeling, but for now, you don’t have to label everything you feel.
- Be mindful of the fact that if you have a lot of pent-up emotions, you’re likely to sometimes overreact in situations. You might wonder where such an emotional response comes from. It rises out of piled up, unexpressed feelings. You’re reacting not only to the current circumstance, but also to past, similar situations. It may seem that stuffing feelings is a way to control them, but in reality, they’ll ultimately control you. Those buried emotions can surface and come out in destructive ways. For now, try not to condemn yourself when this happens. Apologize and try to make things right with the person, and settle it with the Lord. Beyond that, give yourself time to feel and release what you can. In time, as you get things out routinely, you won’t have that build-up that erupts at inopportune times.
- Admit it if you overreact to yourself. If you made a mistake or slipped into an eating disorder behavior, you don’t need to punish yourself. You don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Instead, offer yourself the same kindness and understanding you’d offer someone else who is trying, but struggling. From there, learn to express those emotions. Then you can reach the point where they won’t fester and cause you to turn on yourself.
- Grasp that even if you’re accustomed to depressed or negative feelings, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel happy things. Positive emotions may feel uncomfortable at first if you aren’t used to them. Perhaps this is partly because you believe that you don’t deserve such feelings, but there’s no scriptural support for such a belief. If you think you don’t deserve to feel positive emotions, it’s time to reject that thought and replace it with the truth that you’re free to feel whatever you feel.
- Resist the temptation to focus only on your thoughts to avoid feelings altogether. For example, when you feel something, instead of trying to talk yourself out of it, feel and release it. Even though your thoughts affect your feelings, that isn’t to say you can think yourself out of them. But as your thoughts change, your emotional responses to things will change.
- Refrain from turning to busyness to avoid feeling your emotions. It’s just another way to ignore and bury them.
- Realize that pretending something didn’t happen is another way you may try to avoid feeling your feelings. Denying an event doesn’t remove the emotions it evoked.
- Know that blowing things off and acting like something doesn’t matter, or doesn’t affect you, doesn’t rid you of the emotions associated with the situation.
- Recognize that covering up emotions in front of others doesn’t erase what you genuinely feel. For example, laughing on the outside while you’re crying on the inside doesn’t diminish the pain.
- Be honest with yourself about your feelings. There’s no need to feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed about your emotions. Feelings are feelings, and whatever you feel isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It’s a matter of learning what to do with your emotions.
- Try to be specific about what you’re feeling. You may say you feel bad, and that’s a start. But try to zero in on it. For example, you might feel sad because of a loss, disappointed because something didn’t work out as you expected, or abandoned by someone you thought would be there for you but wasn’t.
- Ignore judgments from others about your feelings. No one else has any business telling you how you “should” feel. For example, no one has any place saying that you “shouldn’t” be upset about something or that you “should” be over the death of a loved one by now. You don’t have to accept those comments, and you don’t have to agree with them. You feel what you feel. Period.
- Keep in mind that even though it may seem like a lot of effort to learn to deal with your emotions, it also takes a lot of work to keep your feelings buried. Burying them keeps you bound to their effects. Releasing them frees you from those effects. When it comes to emotions, it’s better out than in.
- Remember that life happens. You don’t know what emotionally heavy events may be in your future. You may have already experienced such incidents. Emotionally weighty experiences can be a breeding ground for eating disorder behaviors. You don’t need a challenge like that on top of dealing with what has happened. Do yourself a favor and learn healthy ways to deal with your emotions now before more difficult situations occur.
Regardless of how your emotions relate to your eating disorder, know that you can learn healthy ways to express your feelings. Allow yourself to feel, and be patient and honest with yourself. Explore some different ways you can release your feelings instead of stuffing them or numbing them with food-related behaviors.
Tips to Express Emotions
There are several ways you can express your emotions. Even if you aren’t sure about some of the suggestions below, perhaps reviewing them will help you think of your own ideas. You’ll probably find it helpful to have different ways to release different emotions. Note: if your doctor has restricted your physical activity, don’t try the suggestions that require physical exertion.
- Ask God to enlighten you about your emotions. Listen to him for discernment about what types of emotional expressions are a good fit for you.
- Pray for emotional healing. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure how to put your feelings into words. Even if all you can say is something like, “I hurt,” you’ve acknowledged inner pain. Start there. For more on this subject, see the Experience Inner Healing lesson.
- Speak like Job, who in a grief-filled moment, cried out to God, “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). You can’t hide your feelings from God anyway. Feel free to be candid with him. Also, in order to share them with him, you must first admit them to yourself, and being able to do that is an important step.
- Search for Scriptures that contain emotional expression and recite them as prayers if they reflect what’s in your heart. Here are some to start.
“My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps. 6:3-4).
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have multiplied: free me from my anguish” (Ps. 25:16-18).
“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak” (Ps. 31:9-10).
- Write in a journal. Choose an emotion, describe it, and explore the thoughts or events that evoked it.
- Compose stories, essays, poems, songs, or prayers.
- Draw, color, paint, sculpt, sew, do a craft project, or something else creative.
- Sing or play an instrument.
- Find a poem or song that describes how you feel. Reflect on it and use some of its words to write about how you feel.
- Tear up old magazines or other paper.
- Write down something you’re upset about. Then, scratch it out or tear it up.
- Talk to someone you trust, and do your best to describe what you feel. Tell this person you aren’t looking for advice, but for a sounding board so you can talk through your feelings.
- Take a walk.
- Do something physical like scrub the floor.
- Engage in outdoor activities such as gardening, hiking, or exploring.
- Stop yourself when you feel drawn to engage in a food-related behavior, identify what you’re feeling, and express it in some way. If you can’t stop yourself before you do a behavior, stop yourself in the middle or think things through after you’re done with the behavior. Learn what you can from the experience to help you address your feelings. Try to use that to resist turning to behaviors next time.
- Let yourself feel the “good” feelings. Smile and laugh. Raise your hands, clap, or jump up and down.
- List things you’re grateful for, and worship God.
Don’t try everything at once, but choose one idea and see if it’s suitable for you. Try something else another day. It may take several tries to gain ground on releasing your emotions. That’s okay. Take the time you need. It may feel like things are getting worse before they get better. This is common. If it feels like too much, take a break, pray, and discuss things with your counselor. You don’t have to address pent-up emotions all at once, and you don’t have to navigate this process alone.
Dear Heavenly Father,
I thank you that you’ve made me to be an emotional being. I realize that without pain, joy wouldn’t reach into the deep recesses of my heart with such power and hope. Please help me identify what’s going on in my heart and allow me to evaluate what’s there. I recognize that denying my problems and numbing the pain won’t resolve anything. Please help me find healthy ways to express my emotions so I may experience healing. My soul is at rest knowing you will answer my prayer.
In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.1
Deep losses overwhelm me, pull me down.
Deep grief and hopelessness pervade my soul.
Seems nothing lifts me up or gives me peace.
My devastated heart can’t be consoled.
My soul is drowning in my unshed tears.
All hope and joy are gone, feel only pain.
It’s, oh, so dark in my abandoned heart
where only sadness and depression reign.
My grief erupts. Inside the pressure builds,
wells up. I’m longing for relief, release.
Yet with the burning lump stuck in my throat,
mysterious dry eyes prevent such peace.
It seems impossible to even cry,
experience I’ve never had before.
My unshed tears are killing me inside.
Don’t feel I can withstand it anymore.
I know the only way that I’ll survive
is letting loose of pain that keeps me bound.
Take time alone to let my feelings out.
No whimper even comes – no, not a sound.
I feel the loving touch of the divine.
Find comfort now that I can feel him near.
I sense a bit of softening inside.
At last my heart spills out a single tear.2
Learn to Identify Your Emotions
- To help you learn to identify your feelings, use the list below as a reference. When you can’t name what you’re feeling, review this list and see what resonates with you.
- Once you have identified the feeling, try to describe it in your journal. As you write, consider other times you’ve felt this way, what your attitude is toward this emotion, and a way to release it.
- If you can’t write about all of that yet, that’s okay. For now, if you can identify the feeling, that’s a step. Take the next step when you can.
The remaining features for this lesson, as listed below, are printable. You may download the PDF file here.
Answer Key for Quiz
All Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV®
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Find out about other lessons on the Recovery Course page.
Change Your Thoughts
Learn to Deal with Emotions
See Yourself through God’s Eyes Inside and Out
Address Your Relationship with Food
Invite God into Your Recovery
Let Go of Control
Face Your Fears
Experience Inner Healing
Let Go of Perfectionism
Let Go of Guilt
Let Go of Shame
Deal with Relapses