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  • Helly Barnes

The Power of Anger & Angry Eating in Overcoming an Eating Disorder

We are often taught from a young age to avoid anger, that anger is a bad thing and a very negative human emotion that we should suppress. But like all emotions, anger has a purpose and it's there for a reason. With an eating disorder, you are likely to have learnt that the eating disorder was an excellent tool to suppress any feelings of anger that you might have otherwise had and as you overcome the eating disorder and stop using the behaviours and pursuit of energy deficit to numb your challenging feelings and emotions, anger is something that you are likely to experience, perhaps even with little warning. This is when you will need to find new ways to manage anger, not by resorting back to the eating disorder, and in my experience, the power of anger can have benefits if directed in the right way in overcoming an eating disorder.

What are the Benefits of Anger?

When you consider why humans evolved to experience anger and why it's such a common human emotion, you realise that anger is a protective, defensive and even motivating emotion. We experience anger if someone or something is threatening us to try to defend ourselves from the threat (or as a way to defend someone or something else that we care about). Anger can help us stand up for ourselves, be empowered in defending what matters to us and even give us a greater sense of control over a situation. Anger can inspire more optimism and help us push ourselves towards goals that are hard but that really matter to us. It can also help us communicate better in relationships and it increases our self-awareness and insight—it helps us identify what matters to us, what our values really are and where we aren't living by those values (which is then giving rise to the experience of anger). Being able to express anger prevents those powerful emotions from being kept within in ways that only then grow and become more harmful—leading to self-destruct numbing behaviours (such as through an eating disorder) or eventually leading to an explosive outburst in more violent ways.

And anger is an emotion that can have a lot of energy and power behind it, which if used in the right way can be a positive and impactful thing to push towards goals and towards the things that really matter in our lives, such as overcoming an eating disorder.

**Before going any further then, I am just going to put in the caveat here that of course, anger that is allowed to become overly explosive or violent or out of control completely is not helpful and more support would be necessary to help you if you are experiencing anger to an extreme. It is getting that balance between allowing in the anger you are feeling and learning to use it constructively while not letting it take you to levels in which you truly feel at risk of harming yourself or others, as that is when more support is critical.**

The Power of Anger & Angry Eating in Overcoming an Eating Disorder

Because anger is such a powerful and forceful emotion, if it's directed in the right way when you experience it, it can really hurt the eating disorder.

If you go back to consider the role of anger as a human emotion and that anger is designed to help protect us from something or someone that wants to hurt us, providing us with the force, power and sense of aggression to fight off a threat, then you can start to understand how anger can be advantageous to the process of eating disorder bashing (eating disorders being perhaps the biggest threat you will face!). To use anger to an advantage, take any anger you experience and recognise that it is coming from your authentic self. This is the real you, who is desperate to be free of the eating disorder, experiencing this powerful emotion in order to defend what matters most to you in your life. But this is also where it gets more complicated as when you are trying to target that anger towards the eating disorder and the eating disorder is also within you, it's important to separate the eating disorder from yourself. You need to imagine the eating disorder as a separate entity—a parasite perhaps that's within you but it isn't you. If you don't then you will be directing that anger towards yourself which isn't the idea!

Direct the anger towards the separate entity of the eating disorder—that parasite you want to destroy and the force of that emotion that you have within you can be so powerful! Allow your authentic self to get so angry and mad at the eating disorder and all it has taken from you, how rigid, controlling, uptight and anxious it makes you and choose to use that anger to rage against the eating disorder. Eat to piss off the eating disorder - angry eating can be very effective sometimes!!

And as you do so, feel powerful. Because this is you in control and being powerful. This is you on top, defending your future, defending all your inner values and what matters most to you now and in your future. Eat your way there. Show the eating disorder that you are a force to be reckoned with!

Anger Recognition & Redirection

When you have not been used to acknowledging anger for a long time because the eating disorder has been blocking it for what might be years before it even enters your conscious awareness, getting feelings that could be labelled as 'anger' again might be hard to recognise as such at first.

The emotions that start to bubble up when you are going through the process of overcoming the eating disorder and 'giving up' the numbing eating disorder behaviours and pursuit of energy deficit can leave you feeling overwhelmed and confused when they set in.

An awareness of some of the common signs or symptoms of anger can help here so that you are able to start to recognise if anger is something you are experiencing and not acknowledging.

Signs and symptoms of anger include:

  • Emotional outbursts or crying;

  • Feeling shaky;

  • Being irritable;

  • Feeling resentment build towards others;

  • Withdrawal from others and isolation;

  • Being defensive;

  • An increased heart rate;

  • Arguing with self or others and getting upset over small things;

  • Jaw clenching;

  • Feeling clammy;

  • Headaches;

  • General body tension;

  • Nausea;

  • Tight chest;

  • Feeling an energy surge that you feel you need to expend in quite an aggressive way;

  • Episodes of road rage or feeling annoyed by strangers 'in your way' in a shop or on the street;

  • Wanting to slam doors, throw things, punch a pillow and scream!

These are a few of the most common signs and symptoms of anger that is building within you. Of course some of these can also be symptoms of more generalised anxiety or even of refeeding effects when you are overcoming an eating disorder. But if you are experiencing several of these symptoms at once and the feelings are building with force, it is a good bet that a likely cause is anger rising within you.

Firstly then, recognise the symptoms and recognise that you are feeling angry. Label it. Don't judge yourself for being angry—as I said above, anger is there for a reason and it shouldn't be ignored or pushed back down as a 'bad thing'. Acknowledge the anger and allow it. Anger is valid. You have a right to be angry. Then establish why it's there and how to direct it so that it serves you, rather than hurts you or others.

When you are overcoming an eating disorder, it is very likely that you will find yourself experiencing regular episodes of frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, disappointment in yourself that you haven't 'pushed further' (the eating disorder loves to make people feel their attempts at 'recovery' aren't good enough!) and other emotions of shame, guilt, regret and general impatience. And some of this will be coming from feeling you aren't going far enough at bashing the eating disorder, while some will come from guilt at 'did I really eat that much?!'; 'look how big my belly is now!' and other inappropriate but real thoughts and emotions that directly stem from the eating disorder. This all leaves you stuck in the middle with these ongoing conflicting thoughts and feelings, not knowing which way to turn so you are just left feeling exhausted and wanting to scream!

As you are going through all of this, episodes of anger will also come along and when they do it is possible you will automatically try to direct that anger in the wrong direction.

You might automatically direct any anger that comes up either inwardly towards yourself, getting mad at yourself for either not eating enough and 'failing at recovery' again or maybe being angry at yourself for having eaten that burger at lunch when you could have just had the salad instead…

Or, you might find you direct the anger at loved ones or people around you, perhaps allowing in resentment towards them that they are just happily going about their daily lives and eating burgers without thought or not noticing that you only had a salad when they are 'supposed to be supporting you'. It is now that you have to firstly notice the anger is there and then recognise that you are directing that anger in an unhelpful and inappropriate direction.

Now it is time to redirect that anger towards the thing that is the real culprit in all of this - the eating disorder.

As I said earlier, the anger is valid. There is nothing about your experience of anger that is inappropriate. You have a right to be angry. The eating disorder has made your life miserable for too long and it's not fair you have an eating disorder, it's not fair it has taken so much potential from your life to enjoy all the good things that others take for granted, it's not fair that you don't get to be the smaller size and shape you really want to be AND not have an eating disorder - it sucks and you have a right to feel angry about that. So, let yourself feel it and direct it at what is really creating it.

After all, anger is an emotion with an evolved purpose to defend ourselves from a threat and protect what matters most to us from something threatening and so it's important to use that anger at the real threat and the real threat here is not you and it is not your loved ones who are doing their best to 'get it right' in how to support you. The real threat is the eating disorder that created all the misery in your life in the first instance and that is what you should be directing this anger towards!

So when the anger is there, direct the force and the power behind it at really pushing the eating disorder further out your life with a massive shove! Angry eat, rest with a passion, decide you won't go for that walk today, purge or compensate in other ways, but you will proudly aim for overshoot and you will have your life of freedom!

Show the eating disorder you are in charge. Show yourself that you are in charge. Show the world that you are in charge and you are going to do all it takes to get this eating disorder out of your life as fast as you can and with as much force as you can. Get mad at it and force it out!!

I know in my case, there were times that getting angry and managing to redirect that anger from targeting it at myself or at the world in general and towards the eating disorder instead made such a difference. There were occasions that the anger built and I used it to charge at the food, at the process of overcoming the eating disorder with a more powerful force, screaming 'bring it on!' to the eating disorder and the threats it was creating in my thoughts that eating more or gaining more weight would only lead to feelings of regret later. And when I look back on those episodes of angry eating disorder bashing, I can recognise how monumental those times were. You can't force those episodes, you can't force the anger to be there but when it does, use it to your advantage so the anger serves you and doesn't hurt you or the people you do really care about.

After the Anger has Passed, Allow the 'Hangover'

Powerful and strong emotions are energy draining - mentally, physically and of course, emotionally. Anger is no different to how drained you might feel after a good cry when you feel sad or even how tired you might feel after a real exhilarating episode of being on a high.

So, when the anger has subsided, let yourself relax into a feeling of victory, that you are winning and on top and let the feelings of being happily and proudly worn out then come. Anger is exhausting and so respect that fact. Recognise how energy draining being angry was and that you will have an emotional, physical and mental 'hangover' effect from it. You are likely to feel tired, probably even more hungry and it's important then to respect this. Let yourself wallow in pride in the aftermath of the 'angry episode' while resting, eating more and honouring your body and your emotional and mental needs.

Anger is a powerful emotion and it, alongside angry eating can be used to make forceful steps forwards when used appropriately in overcoming an eating disorder. Don't deny anger when it is there, don't try to suppress it or push it away using numbing habits but invite it in when it does bubble up and direct it at the threat that will destroy your life entirely if it can—the eating disorder.

**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,


If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,

available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.


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