How to Deal with Emotions during Recovery (Eating Disorder & Mental Health Support)
When I was going through my eating disorder recovery, I had heard about the opposite action theory. Opposite action is when you do the opposite of your old eating disorder habits. Whether it’s you struggling with binge eating, restricting, counting every calorie, in whatever way that you had a poor relationship to food, the opposite action is you taking the opposite action of it.
For example, when I was going through my own recovery, I would catch myself having disorderly thoughts throughout my day around food, and as scary as it was in the moment, I would challenge them every time by taking the opposite action. I remember being at work one day and making my usual cup of coffee in our employee kitchen when I noticed they had a new creamer out for employees to use. It sounded so good, but I immediately thought, “That has added sugar and calories and we don’t use creamer.” Yet, I desperately wanted it! At that moment, I was faced with two choices:
Choose to use creamer thereby taking the opposite action from my eating disorder thoughts
Keep resisting my truth; my true desire or need at that moment
I chose to use the creamer and at first, it was terrifying! I would say the first minute of pouring the creamer in, seeing my coffee change color, it scared me. I won’t lie. However, the moment the sweet creamed coffee passed my lips… I truly don’t think I have ever tasted something so wonderful in my entire life. I wasn’t stressed or worried or anxious about it one bit! Now sometimes with taking the opposite action, it can be scary. You can feel sort of terrified, then elated, then terrified again. I want to encourage you to ride the wave. Dedicate your recovery to always taking the opposite action of what you disorder is telling you to do because the only way is through it all.
I also think opposite action pertains to your emotions in recovery, as well.
As I went further and further into my recovery, the opposite actions became easier and easier. I questioned my desires less. I resisted my true wants less. I didn’t feel the need to binge or restrict completely; I didn’t feel the need to do ‘all or nothing.’ I didn’t have the feeling my day was ruined by a creamer or two or if I only ate a salad, today was a ‘good day.’ The more I challenged my habits, actions, beliefs, and thoughts around food and the more in that very moment I chose to honor my true hunger, cravings, preferences, etc. the less of a battle it became! Opposite action theory helps you to rewire your brain from its normal disorderly default because the moment you TAKE the new action, your old story of “Em is never allowed creamer,” will slowly diminish as you constantly challenge it.
Now, with emotions, I think this is something no one talks about, and to be honest I didn’t really understand what was happening to myself as I was going through it all. Opposite action theory was easy to wrap my head around as a concept. It was still tricky to always TAKE the opposite action, but it was much simpler to see the logic and to see how it was helping my recovery.
I believe that your emotions also are going to challenge you in recovery. Just like when women experience ‘extreme hunger’ or the hunger that is never satisfied during recovery, I think our emotions do the same.
Extreme hunger and opposite action actually go hand in hand because so often I would be hungry, and you may be the same way, and instead of eating, instead of honoring my hunger and hunger cues, I would immediately bring up a story of how I should feel, should act, or what I should do instead of eating. I wouldn’t eat. I would instead distract myself, chug water, I would take all the old actions and when I was really hungry, taking the opposite action for me was actually honoring my hunger completely regardless of how much I ate, wanted to eat, what it was or when.
Your emotions are trying to do the same thing. They are trying to regain their trust with you. As I went deeper and deeper into recovery, the food became second nature to me. I rarely questioned when or what I ate. I was much more aware of what I was craving and therefore would eat rather than what I should eat *thanks to the old disorder voice.*
However, as soon as I felt good with my food, I felt terrible about my emotions. I was always anxious, sad, upset, angry, depressed, exhausted, lazy, uninterested, and it scared me! I prided myself in being the girl with the energy, the spunk, the drive, the smile, and sunny attitude! I was the girl everyone always came to cheer them up or the ‘life of the party’ one might say, but during my recovery and even slightly longer than my food struggles, there they were: my emotional struggles.
And at first, I beat myself up about them BADLY!
“Why are you always sad? Why are you always upset or anxious or pissed off? What the hell is wrong with me?”
And just like with extreme hunger, I thought my extreme negative emotions would never go away.
But, they stayed around longer because I was resisting them.
Anxiety, Upset, Anger, Exhaustion, Sadness, were all the emotions I had tried to hide away my entire life. Because the perfect girl never felt sad. The girl who had it all together, was in complete control, was a people pleaser if I ever did see one and never felt angry! She couldn’t! If she felt sad, then she wasn’t smiling and she wasn’t helping others or cheering people up, so she wasn’t needed!
Do you see how this plays out?
You’re probably the same way. You used food to suppress, distract, and disassociate from certain emotions for your entire food struggle. We adopted our eating disorders as coping mechanisms regardless of what you were or still are trying to cope with or how you struggle with food.
So, when I was recovering my relationship with food, I was recovering my relationship with my emotions.
I felt sad. Exhausted. Mad at the world because for ten years I just kept shoving these emotions down. And emotions are feelings, they must be felt. They must pass through us to actually leave us not shoved down deeper and deeper to then surface ten years in a full-fledged mental break, which is kind of what happened to me! It’s okay, you are not alone!
You’re healing and healing is deep and sometimes painful, but brings the most magnificent rainbow after the storm, that I can promise you. I think the key here is this: resistance.
Going back to hunger and food, the more you resisted food, the longer it took for you to recover your relationship to it. I remember going through extreme hunger and thinking that I would never stop eating, that I needed to control and limit my recovery, I could kind of eat what I wanted, but still restrict myself. This is known as quasi recovery and it sucks just as bad as being in your full-fledged eating disorder because you are still limiting yourself with food and in turn limiting your life.
I was in quasi recovery FOR YEARS! Because I was still resisting my hunger. I was resisting my bodies cues, preferences, needs, desires. I was resisting my body's FULL healing and we don’t want some half-ass healing plan. I did the same thing with my emotions at first. I would feel myself crying and get frustrated with it. I would pass judgment on my own emotions and try to make sense of it, try to change the story. I would try to not feel sad or only allow myself to feel sad for an hour before I pretended again that I was perfect and there was nothing to see here.
That resistance is the problem.
You don’t need a reason to feel. Ever. Especially in recovering with food. It’s emotional. You’re healing. You’re now allowing yourself to feel emotions you probably haven’t felt in years on purpose! You were scared that feeling bad made you bad. And that’s the story we need to change.
Opposite action with your emotions then is doing the opposite *feeling the opposite* of how you should feel all the time. I believed I had to be happy 24/7. I had to be cheery and upbeat and positive and energetic every single second of every day. Therefore, even in my recovery, I would feel sad and go, “Nope, Emily is supposed to be happy.” And I would resist my true emotions. I would resist my truth. I wouldn’t heal the relationship between me and my feelings because I was still limiting it.
Taking the opposite action is FEELING how you feel just like how you are eating what you want to eat when you want to eat it. With no judgment. With no ‘trying to make sense of the situation.’ With no anger or frustration. With no resistance.
You are surrendering.
And the surrender is what allows you to regain your own self-trust. You regain your body's trust as your extreme hunger goes away AND you will regain your emotional trust as you show your body and emotional brain that you WILL honor your true feelings and allow yourself to have these emotions pass through you rather than shoving them down only to rot in your beautiful being.
Take opposite action with your emotions, as well, because, my sweet girl, I can almost guarantee the root of your food struggle is an emotional one. Focus on healing your food relationship, but also focus on healing your relationship to your feelings.