The Value of Detaching Emotional Responses from Thoughts in Eating Disorder Recovery by Jessica Boghosian, ACSW Freelance Writer for Eating Disorder Hope
Despite what popular psychology and self-help gurus tell us, we cannot control our thoughts. However, we can learn how to change our response to our thoughts. A valuable skill in eating disorder recovery is detaching the emotional response from an intrusive and unhelpful thought.
One might be thinking, “well, how do I do that?” or may even be completely confused by this concept. Well, let’s explore together.
Thoughts can be a beautiful thing, we can think of great things to create, ideas that enhance our lives, explore ourselves, and daydream. However, thoughts can also be destructive and lead us into a habitual pattern of maladaptive behaviors.
Now, in eating disorder recovery, it is not the thoughts alone that can create distress and destruction. It is our response to the thoughts that result in great action or destruction.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) provides an excellent overview and understanding of this concept of getting caught in a thought cycle. CBT utilizes a triangle to represent the cycle of having a thought, experiencing an emotion, and then engaging in a behavior.
An example of this could be, one seeing their reflection as they pass by a large window, which triggers an intrusive thought about their appearance, they experience an emotion (anxiety, insecurity, shame, etc.), and this results in an eating disorder behavior. So how do we stop the cycle?
To begin, it is important to become aware of the cycle. It is often helpful to start from the identified problem behavior and follow it back to the intrusive thought.
Once one becomes aware of the thought-emotion-behavior cycle, it will become easier to categorize thoughts as either helpful or unhelpful. A helpful thought would be one that elicits a response that brings one closer to a full and meaningful life.
Whereas an unhelpful thought will elicit a response that knocks us off course and possibly into a shame spiral. Authors of the book The Happiness Trap, Harris & Hayes (2008)  states that “whether a thought is true is not that important. Far more important is whether it is helpful.
Truthful or not, thoughts are nothing more than words” . This idea that thoughts are no more than just some words is liberating because that exactly is what they are. Again it is not the thought itself that causes one to experience distress and use behavior. It is the emotional response.
CBT guides one to understand the cycle of thought and how it triggers a behavioral response. Now to detach the emotion from the thought, we look to Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). In ACT, one is guided to use skills called thought defusion techniques.
Thought defusion techniques aim to defuse a thought from creating an emotional response, and we do this by creating space between ourselves and the thought itself. One way to create space is to have some fun with the thoughts, Harris & Hayes (2008) teaches us to do this through the use of The Silly Voices Technique.
This technique is perfect for those self-critical thoughts that are common with eating disorders. To practice this technique, one would bring to mind a common self-critical thought and notice any sensations or emotions, that arise with this thought.
Then choose a cartoon or favorite tv/movie character, with a funny voice, and play that thought in the voice of the character. Again notice what happens to this thought as it is played in a humorous voice . One may notice how irrational the thought is, or notice that it does not hold as much power anymore.
When in eating disorder recovery, gaining control over your emotional response is key. The truth is, no matter how real a thought feels, if we do not listen to it, the world will not open up beneath us and swallow us whole. Thought defusion skills will provide the needed separation of emotion from the thoughts, and by doing so will give the power back to us to make an adaptive decision.
 Harris, R., & Hayes, S. (2008). The happiness trap. London: Robinson.
About the Author:
Jessica Boghosian, ACSW, is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker and a Clinical Therapist at Bright Road Recovery in Claremont, CA. She lives for the present moment and shares her warmth and joy at every chance she gets. Jessica currently works with individuals with eating disorders at various levels of care, including Residential, Partial Hospitalization, Intensive Outpatient, and Outpatient. She also works with individuals with other mental health diagnoses at an outpatient level of care.
She holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of New England and is currently working towards licensure. Jessica’s love for her work with patients at Bright Road Recovery is clear to see. She aims to meet each patient where they are at and walks beside them in their journey to recovery. Jessica honors each patient’s individual journey and dedicates herself to increasing their love of life and themselves.