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Karen's Blogs

Blogs are brief, to-the-point, conversational and packed with information, strategies, and tips to turn troubled eaters into “normal” eaters and to help you enjoy a happier, healthier life.Sign up by clicking "Subscribe" below and they’ll arrive in your inbox. 

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Thoughts On Abusers and Victims

Reading a book written on the origins of war (BLOOD OF THE BELOVED by Mary Coleman), I was struck by two useful concepts about aggression which seemed relevant to the population I often serve: victims of physical abuse who become disregulated eaters. If you fit this description, I hope these ideas speed your recovery. If you feel defective or “bad” as a result of having been physically abused by a parent, it’s time to stop blaming yourselves. A 2006 study (“Neural mechanisms of genetic risk for impulsivity and violence in humans,” Meryeer-Lindenberg et als, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science U.S.A., 103:629-6274) identifies three factors which are needed together to produce a violent adult.” (BELOVED, p. 12): 1) gender (being a boy) combined with 2) a gene (MAOA) associated with violence3) maltreatment during childhood Coleman writes that “Societies that tilt toward guilt are actually more likely to avoid war than...
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Abuse and Eating Problems

Eating disorder therapists have long recognized the correlation between female clients who were sexually or physically abused having problems with food. I suspect there might be a correlation for men and even one for emotional abuse as well. Science is only beginning to understand the magnitude of stressing our nervous systems early on. “Abused Girls May Binge on Food as Adults” by Salynn Boyles (MedPage Today, 5/30/13) talks about this correlation and draws from a study in the journal Obesity entitled, “Abuse victimization in children or adolescence and risk of food addiction in adult women” (Mason, SM, et al, 2013, DOI:10.1002/oby.20500). Its conclusion: “Women who experience both sexual and physical abuse during childhood had a more than twofold increased risk for food addiction in adulthood. The analysis of data on 57,321 women enrolled in Nurses Health Study II (NHSII) revealed that severe physical and sexual abuse were each associated with a...
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Childhood Abuse, Stress, Depression and Anxiety

Many disregulated eaters recognize that they’re set off by stress and distress more than other people seem to be. A major reason for hyper-sensitivity is disregulation of brain chemistry due to childhood abuse or neglect. For those of you who’ve suffered this way, understanding the cause of your hyper-sensitivity will help you be more compassionate toward yourself for not always managing your food urges as well as you’d like to. “Suicidal threads” by Laura Sanders (Science News 11/3/12) explains how childhood abuse—emotional/physical/sexual—affects the developing brain and is a risk factor for suicide. “Neuroscientists and psychologists now believe that childhood trauma, including violence and neglect, sears itself into the brain in ways that can have devastating effects later”…” and “may throw off-kilter the hardware responsible for the brain’s response to stress.” Sanders goes on to say that, “due to childhood abuse and resultant stress, there may be problems with a protein called...
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An Eating Disorder as Abuser

A while ago, I was listening to a client tell me how she cringes at her own voice scolding her for not having overcome her binge-eating. You know the voice, it beats up on you for not “getting it” more quickly, for falling back on old patterns, for not doing what you know you “should” do, for not being able to recover once and for all. It struck me during our conversation how much like an abuser this voice is. When someone mistreats or abuses us—say, they scoff that we’re stupid, not good enough, or won’t ever amount to anything—the healthy, natural response is to get angry at their insult and defend ourselves. This rational, self-protective response directs our anger outward at them, to make them, not us, wrong. But many people, especially women, have difficulty getting angry at the person abusing them. Instead, they turn anger inward and beat up...
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Clearing Emotional Pain

All of us have felt stuck at one time or another in emotional pain, in reaction to childhood wounding or as a response to our brain having imprinted a traumatic memory. We all can stop hurting in the present, however, through understanding why the process of intense emotion happens, how it effects us, and what we can do to eliminate its impact. Emotional pain—all pain—occurs for one reason: to spur an animal to do something, eg, to avoid getting hurt again. When my cat charges around and barrels into a cabinet, pain warns her to slow down to avoid a repeat performance. This cause-effect imprint immediately gets laid down neurologically in our brains. Similarly, if your parents shamed you for eating more than they thought you should, you may have an imprint of overeating and shame (pain). The difference between you and my cat is that, because her brain can’t do...
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Meaning Making

Did you know that our ability to make meaning of experience is one aspect of human behavior which distinguishes us from so-called lower-order animals? A part of our brain has evolved in such a way as to automatically assign significance to actions to keep us safe and secure. Unfortunately, most of us rarely examine our interpretations, and may not realize that they are outdated and way off base. Human desire to make meaning is rooted in a need to avoid mistakes to stay alive, while animals assume this function through instinct, without reflection and interpretation. An example illustrates our differences. My friends’ former dog, Damien, got into a fight with a porcupine (true story) and came staggering out of the woods one day with quills shooting out of his poor mouth. Damien was in pain and used his fear of pain to stay away from porcupines ever after. However, he did...
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Early Trauma and Eating Problems

It’s heartening to see my perceptions from 30 years of working with troubled eaters validated once in a while. This is the case with a recent article in Psychotherapy Networker entitled “As the Twig Is Bent: Understanding the health implications of early life trauma” by Mary Sykes Wylie. The article discusses the correlation between early trauma and health issues, including some related to obesity. The following conclusions come from research done by Vincent Felitti, founder of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine. “In a study of 286 obese people in the program…Felitti discovered that half had been sexually abused as children—more than 50% higher than the normal rate reported by women and 300% higher than the rate reported by men. In fact, for these people, overeating and obesity weren’t the central problems, but attempted solutions.” This research was followed by a joint study between Kaiser Permanent and the Centers for Disease...
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Childhood, Sexuality, and Intimacy

We may assume that only clear cut sexual abuse in childhood can cause problems with sexuality and intimacy in adulthood. Although there’s a strong correlation (not a cause and effect) between childhood sexual abuse and eating disorders, this is not the whole story. Abuse, neglect, or any kind of mistreatment—overt or covert—all fall on a continuum and can shape your attitude and influence your behavior as an adult. Obviously, sexual abuse would have a strong impact on your view of your body, but what of other behaviors which may not fall strictly into the “abuse” category? What if your parents couldn’t keep their hands off each other in front of you—not just a quick kiss, hugs, or hand-holding, but touching each other inappropriately? What if a parent regularly got drunk and made sexual advances towards neighbors or relatives with you watching? What if you saw your parent making strangers uncomfortable by...
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Love and Abuse

It’s not uncommon for people who have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their parents or other primary caretakers, to allow themselves to be abused in adult relationships. Although the idea appears to be paradoxical—wouldn’t abuse survivors go out of their way to be around people who are not abusive?—that is not how things often work out. Understanding why you’re drawn to or surround yourself with abusive people will help you unhook from them and from abusing yourself with food. When parents who are supposed to be loving are abusive or, alternately, are abusive and loving, a paradigm of “love wedded to abuse” is established. In a child’s mind, the two go hand in hand: love equals abuse or, at the least, is accompanied by it. This association occurs whether the abuse is constant or intermittent. The experience cuts deeply into a child’s psyche and forms the...
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Problems in Childhood and Chances for Recovery

What makes recovery more or less likely? Is it true that folks with disregulated eating who’ve had a really rough childhood have more problems recovering than those with a less difficult childhood? My answer to this question is both yes and no. On the one hand, if you’ve suffered trauma, abuse or neglect in life, especially growing up, you are not starting your recovery from the same place as others who did not have such maltreatment. Trauma, abuse or neglect can change your brain chemistry by putting you in a state of chronic alert and messing with your cortisol and neurotransmitter responses. This can lead to chronic anxiety or depression, difficulty self-soothing and regulating affect, and interpersonal problems relating to trust, dependence, vulnerability, setting boundaries, abuse, and intimacy. There are numerous studies showing a correlation between early abuse and eating disorders. So if you’ve had a hard childhood, encountered later trauma,...
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Responding to Emotional Abuse

Over the years, I’ve treated many individuals (mostly women) in emotionally abusive relationships, a major cause of food abuse, and have identified three stages of abusee response. Emotional abuse is everything from constantly or intermittently being humiliated, threatened, yelled or cursed at, ignored, shamed, put down or invalidated. Specific behaviors include the abuser making fun of you, eye-rolling when you speak, walking away when you’re talking, telling you that what you think or feel is stupid or untrue, belittling you, or trying to control you through words, tone, or body language. In Stage One, abused individuals are hopeful, wishful and walk on eggshells. They try to please the abuser and truly believe that if they don’t upset him or her, all will be well, misunderstanding that the problem of abuse resides in the other person, not themselves. They fear standing up to the abuser, so they remain passive, ignoring bad behavior...
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Stages of Relationship Health

When we are unhappy in a romantic relationship and lack a blueprint for what constitutes functionality, we may wish for improvement but not know how to achieve it and, in frustration, turn misguidedly to food. Most of us know what physical and sexual abuse are and are clear that we need to put a stop to them, but we’re less clear about what makes for or how to handle emotional abuse or neglect. Hence, it continues and we continue to rely on food for comfort, consolation, and distraction. Lots of folks, mostly women, who are victims of emotional abuse or neglect, lay low, hoping it will end on its own. Let’s call this Phase 1. They walk on eggshells and try to fly under their partner’s radar, all too well aware of how they feel when their partner flagrantly rejects, belittles, shames, ignores, yells or curses at them, but unsure of...
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More on Trauma

As we learn more about the workings of the brain, it’s evident that childhood trauma often plays a crucial role in the development of lifelong emotional—and emotional management—problems. They manifest themselves not only through eating, mood, and anxiety disorders, but in addictions and unhealthy relationships. The greater your understanding of how trauma affects your sense of self, the better your chance of making changes in adulthood to overcome early dysfunctional influences. In Children of Trauma: Rediscovering Your Discarded Self, author Jane Middleton-Moz makes a powerful point: “Children live out what they see reflected in their parents’ eyes. If what is reflected is the disdain and unacceptability of the developing self, that self will be discarded in order to meet the image in the reflective mirror of the world.” This means that if your parents regularly mistreated you, you may have come to believe that there was something intrinsically wrong with you...
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Healing Old Wounds

When people come to me for therapy, it’s most often about eating and weight problems (although I treat the gamut of mental health and relational issues). Clients generally recognize that their poor relationship with food is rooted in childhood dysfunction, but may not know what to do with that information. In fact, understanding the dysfunctional events in one’s history and connecting to the emotions they evoke are two different animals. Clients frequently become stuck because they have difficulty facing the past or doing whatever is needed to heal from it. Don’t let that be you. If specific people—Mom, Dad, a sibling, boss, neighbor—or certain types of people—authority figures, competitors, manipulators, victims—continue to trigger your abuse of food, it’s time to turn back the clock and discover why you’re locked into such intense reactions. That means exploring your early emotional relationship with parents and other family members. Does anyone in the present...
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Trauma and Food Problems

Traumatic childhoods, those that involve chronic neglect, emotional/physical/sexual abuse, or sudden abandonment by a parent, make it harder to recover from eating disorders. These occurrences which happened decades ago continue to have major reverberations in our current lives and often get played out in difficulties with food, self concept, relationships, and impairment of effective life skills. I regularly explain to clients who are frustrated with and disappointed in themselves that people like them who’ve experienced serious, denied, unattended, ongoing or intermittent emotional wounding in childhood will take longer to work through their eating (and other) problems than people who did not suffer in these ways. This conclusion is based on decades of scientific research with trauma survivors, but clients rarely believe me. Instead, they beat themselves up for making the same mistakes with food or relationships over and over and easily fall prey to hopelessness. If you experienced trauma, abuse or...
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Improving Self-care

It’s not unusual for people with eating difficulties to have problems with self-care in other areas as well—drugs, alcohol, hurtful/damaging relationships, or simply treating yourself poorly. It’s common for folks in their teens, 20s and 30s to struggle with issues of self-worth and self-care due to rebellion against family or culture or from plain ignorance and poor role modeling. In fact, it’s often a rite of passage into adulthood; improved judgment comes with experience and maturity. What of those of you who continue to harm yourself into your 40s, 50s and beyond—drinking, drugging, eating, smoking and treating your bodies as if they were disposable? In these decades, you’re no longer struggling to form an identify. Yours is solidified, but your values and actions regarding self-care haven’t evolved from your early years. You may climb a career ladder as high as you can go, but you probably never feel deserving of your...
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Limits to Change

When you read books like mine and other authors trying to help you become a “normal” eater, do you wonder if everyone can become one or just some people? Ever think about whether you’re spinning your wheels with this intuitive eating stuff or how long you should try it before giving up? Based on posts I read on eating message boards and what clients and students say, my guess is that these are red hot questions for you. I’d like to tell you that I have definitive answers, but I don’t. Here’s what I do know. Biology plays a huge part—some 50-70%—in determining your weight. Genetic loading inclines you toward fat or thin. A traumatic childhood or stressful life may predispose you to food regulation problems or eating disorders. Depression and anxiety impact metabolism on a biochemical level and also may exacerbate appetite problems. Your eating habits begin in the womb...
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Learning to Contain and Comfort Yourself

During a telephone therapy session, a client expressed frustration about what to do about his binges. He knew he needed to do something to stop them, but was at a loss regarding exactly what was needed. My response took him back to what we often require in childhood to thwart unwanted and wanton impulses: to be contained and comforted. We really do need both; either one is not quite enough. The goal of containing an impulse is to not let it move from thought or intention into out-in-the-real-world behavior. When driving, I might want to do something nasty to the driver of a car that has just cut me off, but I refrain. I contain or hold back the impulse because I know it is not in my best interest to convert my wish into action for good reasons. We learn containment in childhood when adults do it for us—they yank...
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Abuse and Eating Problems

Recently I attended a seminar on Domestic Violence and have been thinking about its connection to eating problems. I suspect that a number of you may be victims of domestic violence and use food to turn negative feelings against yourself rather than toward your abuser, causing you to feel even worse about yourself. Domestic violence includes chronic anger, blaming, arguing, name calling, threatening violence and other verbal abuse as well as battering and sexual coercion (even between spouses). It is found in every socioeconomic class, race, and age and its victims are characterized by low self-esteem, dependence on a partner for self-worth or believing a partner is dependent on them, and isolation due to few or no emotional or social supports. Victims may suffer from depression or substance abuse and typically deny, minimize, rationalize, and/or defend a partner’s abusive behavior, accept blame and responsibility for it, fear and walk on eggshells...
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Getting Past “The Past”

We can’t help, at times, getting stuck in “the past” and sometimes end up abusing food because of it—a new friend fails to invite you to a birthday bash and you feel slighted, a co-worker claims credit for a job you busted a gut doing and you lose it, or your child screams she hates you after a time out and you burst into tears. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again!) that the bulk of our hurt is rooted in the past. Let’s look at the examples above. First, the birthday bash. If your reaction was overwhelming hurt that you weren’t invited, you may have had too many experiences in childhood—in your family, school or neighborhood—in which you felt left out and excluded. Maybe you often felt as if you were on the outside looking in. So, naturally, when you’re not included now, you feel stung....
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This website is owned and operated by Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW. It contains material intended for informational and educational purposes only, and reasonable effort is made to keep its contents updated. Any material contained herein is not to be construed as the practice of clinical social work or of psychotherapy, although adherence to applicable Florida States, Rules, and Code of Ethics is observed. Material on this website is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment for mental health issues or eating disorder problems, which should be done only through individualized therapeutic consultation. Karen R. Koenig, LCSW disclaims any and all liability arising directly or indirectly from the use of any information contained on this website. This website contains links to other sites. The inclusion of such links does not necessarily constitute endorsement by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW who disclaims any and all liability arising directly or indirectly from the use of any information contained in this website. Further, Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, does not and cannot guarantee the accuracy or current usefulness of the material contained in the linked sites. Users of any website must be aware of the limitation to confidentiality and privacy, and website usage does not carry any guarantee or privacy of any information contained therein.  Privacy Policy