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When I Can’t Tell the Difference Between Emotional Flashbacks and Hunger

Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I used to experience nearly continuous emotional flashbacks. I’d be tossed and turned in a whirlwind of physical sensations, emotional turmoil, and the deep desire for it all to end. I spent a lot of my life thinking things like, “I wish I was dead so I could just get some rest.” Now that my emotional flashbacks are less frequent and more manageable, and suicidal ideation is an unusual occurrence, the connection made between those physical sensations and that deep desire for rest and relief still remains.

Let me explain.

Most days, I experience the physical sensation of hunger. Hunger feels like an ache in my belly and an empty feeling in my abdomen. Some other less obvious sensations I feel are muscle weakness, brain fog, and something I call “bad blood,” the overall sick feeling when my entire body is lacking electrolytes and/or general nutrients. When I am practicing awareness, I can identify these physical sensations as hunger, eat what I need, and the sensations are resolved.

However, when I am not practicing awareness, these sensations can be more mysterious. The deep ache in my belly and the empty feeling in my abdomen can be mistaken for deep sadness or depression. If I mistake these sensations for an emotional experience, I often fail to recognize and satisfy my hunger need, and the sensations escalate. The combination of muscle weakness and brain fog causes me to become clumsy and easily frustrated, and at this point, the sensation of “bad blood” triggers sensory overload.

Then the thought spirals begin: “I’m empty,” “I’m worthless,” and “I just want to die.” Since suicidal ideation is so unusual for me these days, these thoughts immediately alert me that something has gone wrong. I want to die? Of course I don’t, I love my life. So, what did I miss? What triggered that thought to come to the surface? I have to sit with my body, breathe, and ask myself: “what’s going on for me right now?” And in this instance, the answer would be, “I’m hungry.”

In general, humans are wired to be this way, for our “gut feelings” to include everything from hunger to fear to depression. But due to my prolonged experiences with emotional flashbacks, I didn’t know the difference between normal feelings of hunger or emotion, and the emotional flashbacks driven by my trauma. As I’ve been learning to identify emotions in my body for the first time, I am also having to learn the distinction between those emotions, the physical sensations that indicate basic needs, and the physical sensations associated with my emotional flashbacks.

The good news is that knowing this about myself gives me the power to learn and improve in these areas. As I cultivate more awareness, I am more likely to ask myself, “Have you eaten recently” when I think I’m getting depressed. As I cultivate more compassion, I am more likely to question self-critical thoughts that occur during a thought spiral, and gently lift myself out of it.

And if I do happen to be feeling difficult emotions, depression, or an emotional flashback, cultivating awareness and compassion helps me identify and meet those needs too, rather than turning to unhelpful coping mechanisms.

Photo by Alexey Demidov on Unsplash

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