Understanding emotions and feelings

This month we are talking about the emotional experience of having – and recovering from – an eating disorder. In this blog, we are going to look at how emotions and feelings work and relate that to the emotional experience of an eating disorder.

Emotions vs Feelings

First, let’s specify the difference between emotions and feelings.

Antonio Damasio, prominent neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neurology, at the University of Southern California, is well known for his work in understanding the difference and relationship between emotion and feeling.

Damasio explains that your emotions are automatic and innate physiological reactions. His famous example being that if we were to see a bear in the wild, the primary emotional response is ‘run’. This is an innate physiological reaction (engaging your sympathetic nervous system) and demonstrates how emotions are essential to our survival. In sum, emotions are physical and instinctive, instantly priming your body to react.

What comes next is the ‘feeling’ of the emotion connected to the experience, which happens in conscious thought. This process allows us to respond based upon the physiological reaction and, importantly, integrating our personal experiences. Therefore, if we see a bear in cage at the zoo, we don’t go running for the exit because we understand the context in which the emotion take place.

Feelings are sparked by emotions, and this difference is important as our survival depends on avoiding danger.

Whilst they are different things, emotions and feelings are two sides of the same coin and have the ability to influence each other. An example of this might be someone who is scared of spiders: witnessing a spider will cause an emotional response and a feeling of fear and anxiety, but also thinking about a spider will cause an emotional response.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Emotions can also be split into primary and secondary emotions. This is where we may feel a certain emotion on the surface but also have an underlying emotion underneath or deeper down that is slightly different.

Primary emotions are a direct reaction to an external event and are often more transient, meaning that they are less complex and change more easily over time. The most common primary emotions are fear, happiness, sadness, or anger.

Whereas secondary emotions tend to evolve a bit later and become more intense over time. These secondary emotions are more complex because they are often emotional reactions to the primary emotion and tend to reflect our judgements or associations with the primary emotion. These feelings can be influenced by past experiences or learnt from parents or primary caregivers in childhood.

An example of primary and secondary emotions in action would be a colleague criticises our work and we feel angry in response (primary). However, deeper down the emotion we’re really feeling is inadequacy or insecurity (secondary).

Prominent psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and author, Susie Orbach, described a similar thing in her book, In Therapy:

“When we misperceive what we feel…which can easily be stimulated and which doesn’t seem to dissipate, then we might ask: is shame a ‘cover’ feeling…a feeling that the individual is accustomed to experiencing, ever available to be stirred up and yet one that, once felt, fails to relieve the individual. If we probe, we may be able to enable a wider spectrum of feelings.”

The ‘cover’ feeling serves a purpose to protect us from the more complex and potentially uncomfortable feelings underneath.

Eating disorders and emotions

People with eating disorders can struggle to tolerate emotions, particularly those that are overwhelming or uncomfortable.

There can be a fear that an overwhelming negative emotion will become all-consuming and we will end up being defined by that emotion. Because of this there can be a resistance to connecting with those difficult feelings and allowing them to help us understand our lived experience.

Individuals may have also had unpleasant experiences in the face of certain emotions. For instance, if a caregiver has been aggressive in the past, the individual may interpret anger as an unsafe feeling or one that will lead to something overwhelming or dangerous.

As a result of this, we can understand how eating disorders play a role in protecting us from these experiences.

Eating disorders create a seemingly impenetrable armour around us that ensures potentially threatening experiences are kept at a distance. However, this process is maladaptive as it also keeps the good and safe experiences or emotions at bay as well – it can’t distinguish between the two.

What’s more, exposure to uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings can actually be healthy for us as it gives us the opportunity to build resilience in the face of challenge.

Recovery and emotions

Recovery involves widening the spectrum of our emotional experience; welcoming all emotions and seeing them as little flags that help us to navigate our world intuitively.

Throughout the month of February, we’ll be speaking to our specialists about why emotions are important and how we can begin to make friends with them once more. Stay tuned!

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