Many dysregulated eaters are affected by traumatic events and may not realize it. These events, called “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs, are, unfortunately, so commonplace in some families and sub-cultures of society that it may not occur to you that they could have a huge, negative impact on your life—or your eating. Though these events happened long ago and you may have minimized, suppressed, rationalized, or repressed (unconsciously forgotten) them, by recognizing them, you can better understand your emotional (and eating) dysregulation and reactivity today.
ACEs include: “being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents; being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you; feeling that your family didn’t support each other; having parents who were separated or divorced; living with an alcoholic or drug user; living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide; watching a loved one be physically abused.” (Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture In Crisis, 2016, HarperCollins, p. 226. There are, of course, ACEs that one could have in childhood not listed above, and every divorce or separation does not necessarily have a lasting negative impact on a child. Adverse effects run from a good deal of screaming in your family to frequent evictions to homelessness to any physical or sexual abuse.
I am direct with clients that having had a substance abusing parent, parents who yelled at each other or their children a lot, or parents who repeatedly controlled or shamed them as a child make for a dysfunctional and hurtful upbringing. Often they jump in to defend their parents, mentioning their positive attributes, describing good times, and explaining that things weren’t really that bad. But, being insulted and humiliated is that bad, as is being demeaned and rigidly controlled. It doesn’t matter that your parent may have stopped drinking or drugging when you were a teenager. Your nervous system is pretty well formed by then, along with your world view and your view of your place in it.
Adverse childhood experiences dysregulate a child’s nervous system due to their harshness, unpredictability, and children’s nearly total and potentially frightening dependence on their parents (or care-takers). And today, that dysregulated nervous system may turn to food (or drink, drugs, or computer/exercise/work/pornography addictions) for emotional re-regulation rather than to other people because experience tells it that people are not to be trusted for comfort or dependability. Moreover, by growing up in what we call a shame-based family, the child ends up carrying a great deal of shame that belongs to their parents (for their improper behavior) and not to them.
If you’ve had any (and especially if you’ve had many) ACEs and haven’t considered or explored how they might affect your eating, now’s the time. I can practically guarantee that you won’t resolve your eating problems until you address your history. Read more about ACEs online, join an ACOA (adult child of alcoholics group), or learn about co-dependence. I also encourage you to read my blogs on trauma and abuse.