Eating disorders are plagued by unregulated, blunted emotions that are hidden though maladaptive patterns such as binge eating, extreme dieting, self-induced vomiting, diuretic and laxative abuse and excessive exercise.  Individuals hide their emotions in an effort to cover up their past traumas or poor coping skills that were poorly developed during childhood. Entering eating disorder treatment and recovery provides you with the skills to learn to regulate and express emotions in a healthy coping pattern. Anger, denial, and grief are all common emotions that are expressed while in recovery and can be extremely overwhelming. Imagine having an eating disorder for five years and during this time emotions were hidden, blunted and not expressed. Upon entering eating disorder recovery, these five years of hidden emotions may flood out all at once, resulting in an emotional rollercoaster. Many individuals with eating disorders often only associate themselves with their specific eating disorder and do not see themselves in any other light. When entering eating disorder recovery, that eating disorder is lost and therefore it is normal to grieve that loss of self that you once maintained. Learning to regulate and express your emotions while grieving the loss of your past self can be overwhelming. It is important to understand what is grief and the reasons we grieving during recovery.

What is grief and how is it associated with eating disorder recovery

Grief is defined by a sense of deep sorrow that is usually expressed when an individual dies however the loss of a relationship or your sense of self during your eating disorder recovery can also result in feelings of grief. There are five stages of grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying and these stages are still well-known today. During the time of grief or bereavement individuals may spend varying lengths of time working through each step and although the stages of grief are universal, they do not have to occur in a particular order for every individual. Letting go of your eating disorder means you are letting go of your self-control over body image and food. You are giving up the one thing in your life that you were able to control and now you are vulnerable and are no longer able to hide your emotions with unhealthy coping skills associated with disordered eating. As a result the grief process for the loss of your sense of self is deemed the same as if you lost a loved one. There are five stages of grief, which are as follows:

The five stages of grief

  • Denial and Isolation

Usually the first feeling when you lose a loved one or your sense of self is, “this is not happening”. We often block out and rationalize the facts and reality in order to escape the pain and sense of loss. Blocking and rationalization are defense mechanisms that help us buffer the overwhelming emotions associated with loss and this temporary response can help carry us through the pain for a limited time.

  • Anger

After we spend time masking our emotions and living in denial for a short time, our emotions begin to unravel and feelings of anger can seep out. Our anger may be re-directed at our friends, family, therapist, strangers, or inanimate objects. You may be angry that you allowed yourself to engage in disordered eating at such a young age or your may have feelings of anger because other people noticed your disorder or you no longer have control over yourself.

  • Bargaining

This is typically a feeling of vulnerability and helplessness and a need for control. Did we do the right thing? Am I really going to become healthy and find happiness? Should I have hid my disorder better? What if I never entered treatment? Should I have entered treatment sooner? In terms of bargaining when a love done is lost, many people ask themselves if they should have sought a second opinion or received medical attention sooner.

  • Depression

Depression is usually characterized by a profound sadness and the feeling of the weight of our loss. We no longer have our loved one around to comfort us or we are no longer in control via means of controlling our weight and body image and this void can result in depressed feelings that may linger for a long period of time.

  • Acceptance

This is the final stage of grieving and some individuals may never reach this stage. Acceptance is characterized by feeling at ease with your loss, whether it is the loss of your sense of self or the loss of a love don, learning healthy coping skills and allow yourself to express emotions while accepting reality can be the healthiest way to deal with a loss during your recovery.