Emotional avoidance is a key topic in therapy when you’re struggling with an eating disorder. But what is it exactly, and why is it so bad? Generally speaking, emotional avoidance is the ability to shut down, turn off, ignore, or disregard uncomfortable emotions. This can actually be healthy in certain situations, like when you’re at work or at school and leaning into sadness, disgust, guilt, or anger would not be socially appropriate. In these situations, if the emotional avoidance is healthy, you would circle back later to allow yourself to feel these emotions so that they can hit their peak and simmer, allowing your mind and body to regulate the way they’re supposed to.
Emotional avoidance becomes problematic when it is no longer situational and becomes more of the rule rather than the exception. For many people, it starts with avoiding one particular emotion in a particular situation, like anxiety at school, but it slowly spreads to more uncomfortable emotions in more situations until all emotions are effectively numbed out – both the uncomfortable AND comfortable emotions. This is how eating disorders come into fruition. Part of emotional avoidance is using some kind of cognitive or behavioral tool that helps provide comfort when uncomfortable emotions arise, and eating disorder behaviors provide that relief.
For example, I have seen adolescent clients that started out restricting their lunch at school because of social anxiety or perfectionist tendencies related to schoolwork, where they spend their lunch working instead of eating. Over time, the restriction becomes more widespread – it’s not just happening at lunch anymore because of anxiety. It helps with other uncomfortable emotions at home, with friends and family, or during their extracurricular activities. Now it has become highly problematic both medically and emotionally, and they end up in my office.
During eating disorder recovery, it’s important to learn to lean into emotions again, to feel their uncomfortable physical sensations, thoughts, and urges. This will not feel good at first, but it is a critical part of the process and helps decrease the likelihood of relapsing. It teaches resilience, builds capacity to connect with others, and allows true joy to be felt. Life feels more full when emotions can come and go as they are designed to do, making recovery totally worth the journey.