When talking with individuals about eating disorders, I explain that an eating disorder is a very real physical and mental illness. Eating disorders also function as a maladaptive coping mechanism.
What is a maladaptive coping mechanism?
A maladaptive coping mechanism refers to a strategy used by a person to bring down the level of emotion they are experiencing but it is often ineffective and/or harmful to the person. There are several forms of maladaptive coping mechanisms, but we will focus on those related to food.
Purging (through varied means including over-exercising)
Looking at these behaviors, you may be thinking well, these do help me manage my emotions. I would probably counter that they may help in the short-term, but long-term lead to an unwell physiological and psychological state – thus a maladaptive coping mechanism.
The truth is… food (or lack thereof) is not an adaptive coping mechanism.
Our emotions tell us a lot about how we experience a situation. Emotions help us understand our needs and those needs deserve to be met directly. When we try to use maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as eating disorder behaviors, we are temporarily relieving ourselves from that emotion only for it to re-surface later because we haven’t met the actual need when it is much more pressing.
I often explain this to my clients by having them picture a soda bottle after it has been shaken up. There are a couple options to defuse the situation. You can slowly release the cap to have the pressure release gradually or you can take the cap all the way off and have the soda overflow. I explain to them how our emotions are similar. When we keep our emotions inside, they can build the same pressure as a shaken soda bottle. When we use maladaptive coping mechanisms, we are setting ourselves up for an explosion.
So what do we do instead?
We learn to adaptively cope with our emotions. Sounds easy…right?
We can start to adaptively cope with our emotions by first ensuring we are engaging in basic self-care activities. A certain commercial tagline comes to mind when I talk with my clients about basic self-care.
You’re not you when you’re hungry (credit: Snicker’s commercial).
It’s so true! You are also not you when you are over-tired, over-worked, and over-stressed.
It’s important to know your vulnerabilities and then have this inform your basic self-care. For example, my vulnerabilities are being over-hungry and over-tired. Because I know this about myself, I have learned to detect my early hunger and early tired body cues and have worked to respond in a timelier manner to these cues.
We can also identify our emotional vulnerabilities. There are many emotional triggers for eating. During sessions, I will review eating disorder behaviors and will have clients walk back to the time that they engaged in that behavior to understand their emotional state. Once we understand the emotional state that led to the behavior we can discuss alternate coping strategies to adaptively meet their emotional need. Below are some examples of how eating disorders may give us the illusion of helping us and examples of alternate coping strategies.
Let’s talk about emotional eating.
First, I do think it’s important to normalize emotional eating! As someone who identifies as an intuitive eater, there are times that I have eaten past comfortable fullness because I was celebrating a birthday or because something it reminded me of my childhood. While this is connected to what we are talking about, this isn’t necessarily a maladaptive coping mechanism (see above definition)! Nor does emotional eating make a person bad! It’s an experience of everyday life.
What we are discussing here is when food is our ONLY coping mechanism for these emotions to the point that it is damaging to our emotional and physical wellbeing. When this is the case, here are some helpful strategies.
Address basic self-care
Cope ahead by identifying potential triggers and potential solutions to those triggers
Choose to feel our emotions
Adaptively cope using alternate coping strategies
Engage in helpful distraction
Our emotions tell us a lot about how we perceive a situation. They allude to unmet emotional needs that deserve to be met in an adaptive way for our physical and psychological wellbeing.