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Identifying & Labeling Emotions in Your ED



By: Abby Emmert M.A.


You know that needle in a haystack saying? Yeah. That’s what labeling your emotions in your ED is like. Throwing a dart at a bullzeye that isn’t there. Something like that! It’s hard, and sometimes feeling almost impossible. What we know is that those that struggle with eating disorders often struggle with emotion regulation, as well. If you don’t know what this is, it’s one of the pillars of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), which is one of the therapy techniques that we reference when treating eating disorders. In DBT, emotions are seen as brief, voluntary, and a natural response to different stimuli. This may shock you, but the average emotion lasts 90 seconds. Obviously, there is room for extremes in that! But for the most part, emotions are temporary! Emotion regulation is the influence and control that we have over emotions when we have them. This includes: how we express them, when we express them, and how we experience them in our bodies.

As you may be guessing, this relates to eating disorders because we see so often that clients use their eating disorder behaviors as a way to regulate or deal with their emotions, usually because no other coping skill has worked! DUH! Now, when we say “deal with” emotions, we mean to soothe them, decrease them, or experience them differently than how you currently are. Why do we try to change them? Well, because usually they are pretty damn uncomfortable. We are raised in a society that depends on instant gratification and comfort. We don’t like sitting in discomfort at all. And as I have worked in this field, and done my own self-work, I have realized that more often than not we don’t even know how to sit in the discomfort.

The worst part of this job is meeting with clients that feel like they finally got “control” over their feelings, but it comes with a side of eating disorder. And I’m the one that has to tell them that what they have been doing isn't working. Basically, stripping them of what they think has been working and telling them they have to start all over. Yeah. Not fun. It crushes them! But we know it's not sustainable what they have been doing. So, the best part of this job is helping them explore and maintain skills that are actually healthy and do exactly what they need them to, with no side effects ;) But before we can get to coping skills, we have to make sure you know how to even identify your emotions and label them! It sounds easy, but after so long of numbing or struggling with them, it can actually be really hard!

So, here we go! The first step I take with clients is essentially a “warm-up” activity. Find some pictures that you have of yourself over the last couple years (try to make them more recent so you can identify the memory more easily). Going through each picture at a time, I have clients bring forward the memory, where they were, who they were with, and what emotion they believe they were feeling at the time the picture was taken. To help clients identify the emotion, I use a feelings wheel. You can just search that on the internet and find any one that you like! For the one I use with clients, reference the resources below :) As you move through the pictures and label the different emotions, I want you to also ask yourself these questions:

  1. How do I know I felt that way?

  2. What signs told me that this was the emotion I was experiencing?

  3. What is the opposite of this emotion?

  4. What is a similar emotion?

  5. Was I feeling multiple at the same time?

After practicing labeling emotions in pictures, you’re set to try labeling them in real life moments! You may already be doing this. But try using the feelings wheel to go beyond the “primary emotions” of being angry or happy and digging deeper. For example, you may find yourself standing in your kitchen before dinner, about to face a fear food, and feeling like you want to cry. There are probably multiple emotions happening inside you at once. The easiest emotions to identify in that moment is probably FEAR. But what else is happening? Are you overwhelmed by the challenge? Are you disappointed that you thought this would be easier than it is? Are you hurt that the people around you aren't being patient? These are all completely normal feelings! But we need you to identify them in order to work through them. What I usually suggest to clients is that they print out the feelings wheel and place it on the refrigerator (or wherever else they may find themselves struggling in the house, i.e. the bathroom) as an easy place to go to to help identify their feelings during more challenging times. Try just labeling them first in these moments.

Next, I want you to rate how intense they are. Some people use a scale of 1-5, and some use a scale of 1-10. The higher number should represent the most intense version of these emotions that you have ever experienced. Rate the emotion you’re feeling on this scale in this moment and take a deep breath. Then, remind yourself that you don’t need to fix them. Going back to the idea that we need immediate fixes to things, emotions are not one of those in this life! The emotions we feel, even as intense or as uncomfortable as they are, do not kill us. They themselves do not cause harm. It’s usually the behaviors we engage in as a result of trying to “fix” the emotions that cause harm. So I want you to remind yourself that you can feel uncomfortable and do not have to do anything about it. You can feel challenged and not have to fix it. You can feel unhappy or angry or hurt and not have to solve it. You can survive through it, and it will be temporary.

Come up with a plan in these moments of how you will use that energy that you used to put towards your eating disorder towards healthier, more productive and long lasting behaviors. Maybe you plan to call a friend, maybe you take a walk with your mom or dog. Maybe you start journaling. All of that energy you used is still there, it's not gone, it just doesn't need to feed the ED. It can now feed your recovery <3

We're here for you, warrior. You got this.


https://behavioraltech.org/role-of-emotion-regulation-dbt-part-1/

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