Eating Disorders, Self-Cutting, and Unexpressed Emotions: A Deadly Relationship

There is a common denominator to the problem of eating disorders. This common denominator is that those with eating disorders have difficulty expressing the management of their feelings. How emotions are handled depends on the eating disorder the patient suffers from. Anorectics starve themselves to prove how good they are. Bulimics, denying emotions, purging after having binged. Those with binge eating disorders stifle their emotions by stuffing themselves with carbohydrates. Whether it’s the purging of bulimia or the frantic eating of binge disorders, people are drugging themselves into passivity and sleep.

The theme of each eating disorder is the attempt to cope with emotions that feel chaotic, frightening, overwhelming, and dangerous. When people show that the eating-disordered individual is trying to exercise control, they are correct. However, control is misunderstood. 

The anorectic, bulimic, and binge eaters are attempting to gain a sense of control over their internal worlds of chaotic and frightening emotions. The problem is that the strategy to control emotions is dangerous to the individual’s health and life. Anorexia, if left uncontrolled, leads to death because of malnutrition. Constant purging in bulimia is harmful to teeth, esophagus, and stomach, and binge eating leads to obesity and untimely death because of strokes, heart conditions, or complications caused by diabetes.

What is not clear is why the people who develop these disorders experience difficulty coping with emotions. It is important to note that not everyone with emotional difficulties develops an eating disorder. 

Although there are many theories about the causes of eating disorders and research continues, very little is known about why particular individuals develop these problems as opposed to a variety of other disorders. Also, there is a tendency to believe that the symptoms of these illnesses point to the causes. Theories range from the emphasis in Western Culture on thinness, with advertising campaigns portraying the ideal man and woman as thin, to depression, the need for perfection, family dynamics, and genetic predispositions. 

These theories contain elements of truth. For example, suppose the need to be perfect is a symptom of anorexia. In that case, the cause may be demanding parents who are never satisfied with the child and demand more than the child can deliver in school, sports, and physical appearance. The problem for many people is the inability to prevent children from developing an eating disorder. In addition, parents end up feeling guilty if their children develop eating disorders. 

With so much emphasis on dysfunctional families, it is natural for thoughtful and caring parents to assume they must have done something wrong to cause the problem.

For some individuals, eating disorders begin quite by accident. For others, there is a conscious effort to lose weight or relieve tension. While the reaction to having purged is usually disgust and a feeling of shame, there is also a sense of relief from having purged. An example, several male and female patients suffering from bulimia nervosa report they discovered the importance of purging either by accident after recovering from too much alcohol consumption, by being ill with the flu, by experimenting with purging, or by learning about it from a friend and experimenting with the same behavior. 

That sense of relief is sought after among those who purge. The relief is based on two major factors: 

 After purging, there is a false belief that the intake of calories has been avoided, and 

 Because of the intense shame experienced by the bulimic, the purging is done in privacy. It is kept secret from friends and family. After purging, the brain seems to increase the number of endorphins secreted, resulting in a euphoric and calm feeling, much like that experienced by drug abusers.


Individuals who become anorectic begin by attempting to lose some weight. Immediate success in weight loss produces a feeling of exhilaration and power that spurs the individual to increase efforts to reduce and restrict food intake and lose weight. 

Hunger and food become major fixations in a way typical of obsessive thinking. It is a myth that the anorectic does not feel hungry. It is the ability to master and control hunger pangs that fills the anorectic with joy and with the thought that they are accomplishing something that friends and other peers cannot accomplish. The joy of weight loss and mastering hunger becomes so powerful that the individual looks in the mirror, see themselves as fat, and goes at weight loss with renewed determination.


A binge eater is an individual who experiences a sense of tension relief that results from consuming large amounts of carbohydrates incredibly fast. The taste and quality of food mean little or nothing. The primary goal, either consciously or unconsciously, is to achieve a tranquil state of being, similar to that achieved with Valium. Here, food intake serves as a kind of drug abuse. 

Following a binge and sense of calm, usually after a nap, the individual experiences a storm of self-hate and self-contempt for consuming so much food. Besides this self-loathing, there is the genuine worry about gaining weight. The binge eater is often afflicted with weight gain that can result in obesity.

Whatever eating disorder the individual is struggling with, powerful emotions lurk underneath. These emotions include depression, hopelessness, emptiness, self-hatred, and anxiety about entering adulthood.

What characterizes these illnesses is the lack of learned skills on which the individual can rely to cope with stress in school, work, and social situations. If left untreated, the downward spiral of hopelessness and depression can cause a kind of suicide resulting from the real physical problems created by the eating disorder.

Cutting and Self-Mutilation

It is not unusual for some people suffering from eating disorders to engage in direct bodily self-harm to reduce emotional pain and suffering. Self-harm can occur as cutting and self-mutilation with a razor, knife, or sharp instrument. Individuals with bulimia or binge eating may engage in alcohol and drug abuse. People are less likely to suffer from anorexia because they are extremely restricted with their diet and what they allow into their bodies. Ironically, the restrictive anorectic may escape the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. However, the anorectic is not immune to the dangers of self-harm.

Males and Eating Disorders

Anorexia and bulimia are most commonly associated with females. The illness asserts itself during early adolescence. However, it is not unusual for women to experience the first symptoms of starvation or purging during their twenties. 

Increasingly today, more young men are experiencing the symptoms of eating disorders. Some people experience a combination of anorexia and bulimia. These people severely restrict their diets but purge after eating any fattening meal. Parents can no longer feel secure in the belief that, if they have sons, they are immune from the distress of eating disorders. Similar issues are at work for males with eating disorders as with females. 

Managing the inner world of emotions, including sexual tension, anger, fear, depression, and hopelessness, motivates young men to binge, purge, or starve to bury uncomfortable feelings.


The post Eating Disorders, Self-Cutting and Unexpressed Emotions appeared first on DocTalk, Explorations in Psychotherapy.

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