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I lost a lot through not learning to manage my emotions - The long term impact of Anorexia and Abuse

The long term impact of Anorexia and Sexual Abuse by Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner

Anorexia will tell you what it gives you is worth listening to but trust me it isn’t. I hid behind those false lies and false value for so long! Talking and feeling can be hard but it is so much better in the long run! That I can guarantee you from experience. Don’t let yourself lose things before it takes you to realise this!

A few days ago I did something very scary for me…

I honestly told you all how I was feeling.

As well as my therapy and all my plans of action that I told you about last week (including a new one which I have since started doing; writing about how I feel when I do talks and making sure I process things); I also have been researching my anorexia and the sexual abuse.

A recent study (SPEAKS study) highlighted that anorexia is often arisen from a lost sense of emotional self. If we don’t tackle this, we don’t properly get to the root cause. I read this and felt inspired to crack this part of me. The part that never really got tackled in hospital and through all my therapy. This in itself is frustrating, but my new therapy is certainly doing this so much but as it is a way of life I have learned I know it is going to be hard to crack quickly.

The fact remains it is okay to feel things, it is okay to feel pain, but I do struggle with this!

I read this report, spoke to the Author and my therapist and it got me thinking about my whole history with my illness and also the sexual abuse. Two things which have had life lasting impacts on me, my relationships and general emotions (both positive and negative). And actually I can stand here and honestly say too big an impact and one I feel confident now (aged 29 and after heaps of therapy) I can crack.

Before I share my thinking around this (hopefully it won’t be too wordy!) I wanted to reiterate that whilst it is frustrating that I have lost stuff to both these factors there is no point beating myself up over this anymore.

A few things that struck me in the report were:

  1. Emotional numbness anorexia gives us which stops us processing our emotions

  2. Being overly reliant on feedback from others: we think anorexia makes us feel better but it actually triggers more negativity

  3. People with anorexia tend to supress their emotions for the needs of others; their needs feel less important than others

  4. The impact of the words we choose when describing emotion over those who haven’t had anorexia

  5. People with anorexia may see situations as increasingly negative even if they are actually quite positive

We then have these longer term issues (if that wasn’t complicated enough)

1) Greater Amygdala Activity: so we have a greater threat detector and therefore can feel bombarded by emotions as they can be triggered more easily, plus we might notice triggers of emotions more than others (e.g. in the faces of other people or other social cues). This can mean we feel overwhelmed by emotions.

2) Prefrontal Cortex; the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that can regulate or control other parts. We may have a prefrontal cortex working extra hard to control and regulate emotion which may seem helpful given point 1), but reduces emotional awareness and clarity making it harder to deal with the emotions we have and what they are trying to tell us.

3) Insula; The insula helps people to integrate emotions into their body as part of their ‘self’. Our insula may not function as well, and indeed this can get worse as the illness goes on longer. This potentially makes it hard for us to appreciate and really ‘feel’ that our emotions are an important part of who we are.

So let’s start with the emotional numbness anorexia gave me. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t love this. After being sexually abused when I was 13 the anorexia helped turn off all those feelings I was so desperate not to feel. I had been left with all this guilt, and distressing images that I realised the only way to switch them off (because I didn’t want to talk) was to not eat. It sucked me in like this and it became my solution to life, it removed me from the reality of living. What I didn’t realise at the time and actually probably not until recently is the longer term impact this has had on me.

Aged 29, and I can’t even feel stuff. I shut off from situations I find too intense or triggering. I should have realised this years ago that I needed help from the therapy I couldn’t engage with to when I was with people and was quite shut down it was because I was finding the situation triggering and emotionally hard.

The frustration for me with all this is that it doesn’t impact my work, campaigning but impacts me; predominately my personal life, what I get from relationships and those around me. It means that I put my guard up far too much, don’t really know what words to use when I am describing emotions that are impacting me.

The second thing I wanted to flag is how I supress my emotions for others and don’t see my needs as important. I constantly apologise when I say I need support. It isn’t because I see myself as weak if I feel things but just because I don’t think I matter quite as much. Again this is hard with others as it means that sometimes my priorities get all jiggled up. It means that instead of tackling things I panic, hate feeling those emotions and because I don’t want to relapse again I switch off instead of talking.

I know that throughout my recovery I have spent a huge amount of time having therapy, but only now have I really realised the importance of dealing with emotions in the right way.

But this isn’t all bad news for us. It’s about how we take this information and use it in the right way.

How we start to engage with things better; find our emotional self and push forward with that. I know I don’t have all the answers right now but that said I have realised the long term impact that anorexia and sexual abuse has had on me. And even over the last four weeks from admitting I wasn’t okay, to getting therapy to instilling you routine and positivity in my life I have already had countless people comment saying “you are getting back to your old self” and I LOVE that.

To spell it out it has;

  1. Caused me to up my guard

  2. Stopped me dealing with emotions

  3. Caused me to push people away

  4. Made me uneasy about so much from emotional stuff to waiting for people to walk away

  5. Causes me to self-destruct when emotions get too tough for me to deal with

  6. Neglecting my needs (which Anna Oldershaw reminded me of this which is vital; “Our emotions can tell us what we need and direct us towards the right course of action to get those needs met. If we deny our emotions and therefore our needs (or believe we don’t deserve to have emotions and/or needs) we are ultimately starved as people.”)

So where does this leave me?

Stronger for realising that, that’s a fact! It has been so enlightening finding out more about myself and actually accepting the long term impact of life events on me. it has made me realise that I can change this, and as well as helping me to open up more it has also meant I am challenging myself more and more every day! I am not accepting where I am in my recovery or how I deal with things but looking wider.

For me it is about accepting this part of me, not stressing about what I have lost but trying to use this to build myself up to be even stronger. And to also actually start processing all those things.

Not tackling my emotions didn’t make me weak, it was just annoying for me and those around me. I feel confident and strong enough to say that I can one hundred percent use recent life events to really turn this around and actually crack this once and for all!

If you you'd like to share your thoughts or experience you can give feedback by emailing and follow or tweet on twitter @SPEAKSstudy and @annaoldershaw

Author's Bio


Hope Virgo is the Author of Stand Tall Little Girl, and an international award winning leading advocate for people with eating disorders. Hope helps young people and employers (including schools, hospitals and businesses) to deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affect one in four people and costs employers between £33 and £42 billion annually. She has been described by Richard Mitchell, CEO of Sherwood Forest Hospital, as "sharing a very powerful story with a huge impact". Hope is also a recognised media spokesperson, having appeared on various platforms including BBC Newsnight, Victoria Derbyshire, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News.

For four years, Hope managed to keep it hidden, keeping dark secrets from friends and family. But then, on 17th November 2007, Hope's world changed forever. She was admitted to a mental health hospital. Her skin was yellowing, her heart was failing. She was barely recognizable. Forced to leave her family and friends, the hospital became her home. Over the next year, at her lowest ebb, Hope faced the biggest challenge of her life. She had to find the courage to beat her anorexia.

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