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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Trauma Survivors and Emotional Eating

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 Image by Debbie Digioia If you were a victim of trauma in childhood, it’s essential to understand that you may have a more complex set of problems than a dysregulated eater who hasn’t had traumatic experiences. This fact was brought home to me while I was reading “How Trauma Can Make a Victim a Victimizer: Using Empathy to Help Abusers Make Amends” by Noel Larson (Psychotherapy Networker online 7/12/16). Childhood trauma—including neglect and sexual/emotional/physical abuse—more often than not, produces a dysregulated nervous system. Larson tells us that, “When the primary caregiver is unwilling or unable to regulate an infant’s stress through attunement, the child suffers extreme anxiety, even terror. The child who doesn’t get the message that everything’s going to be all right can grow up unable to regulate his or her own affect. Without attunement, the infant’s brain has two major options: hyperarousal or dissociation. A hyperaroused child’s world is dominated by...
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Book Review – Healing from Hidden Abuse

Every so often I come across a book that’s not about eating, but whose subject matter may cause us to turn to food for solace. Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse by Shannon Thomas, LCSW is such a book, and I’m grateful that a client recommended it to me. If you’re in any kind of relationship with a toxic person who abuses you psychologically—friend, colleague, boss, family member, lover, spouse, neighbor—you need validation, understanding of the dynamics that are occurring, and practical solutions, all of which this book provides. Thomas, an abuse survivor, calls hidden abuse “chronic and repetitive secret games being played by an individual, or a group of people against a target. These actions are so well disguised that their venom frequently goes unnoticed” by others while crushing its victim. This happens when someone is “present physically but checked out emotionally,”...
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Harsh Parenting and Risk of Obesity

Let me tell you at the outset that this blog reports on disturbing news, and that the research and conclusions of a study I’m going to tell you about ring absolutely true to what I’ve encountered during 30-plus years of treating people with eating and weight concerns. The article summarizes the conclusions of a study about parenting and childhood obesity (article: “Parents’ harsh tactics raise child’s obesity risk,” Futurity Health and Medicine, 4/20/16; study: “Harsh parenting, physical health, and the protective role of positive parent-adolescent relationships” by Schofield, Conger, Gonzales and Merrick, Social Science and Medicine, vol. 156, 5/16, pp. 18-26). “Harsh parenting may increase a child’s risk for poor physical health and obesity as they get older. And attempts by one parent to counterbalance the harsh behavior are not always effective in lessening the risk. Harsh parenting was defined as parents who reject, coerce, are physically aggressive, and are self-centered,”...
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What Keeps People Stuck in Abusive Relationships?

What keeps people stuck in abusive relationships? One answer is that we’re all rats at heart. No, not bad people as in calling someone “you dirty rat.” I mean that, like the rats in psychologist B.F. Skinner’s conditioning experiments, we form behavioral patterns through experiencing reinforcement of pain and pleasure. On the positive side, rats fed food pellets will continue to seek them out, and humans who are loved will come back for more. On the negative side, rats who receive electric shocks will turn tail and run away, and humans who are mistreated (well, most of us, anyway) will say game over. But what happens when rats receive intermittent reinforcement, if sometimes they get food pellets while other times they get shocked? What do you think they do then? The drive for food is so strong that they remain hopeful and continue to head for what they hope is the...
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How Trauma Can Lead to Personal Growth

Most of us think about trauma as just about the worst thing that can happen to us. And for many, it is. Even if you’ve survived trauma, you still may be dealing with its physical and emotional aftermath, which perhaps includes emotional eating. How, then, can trauma ever have an upside? In “How trauma can change lives—for the better,” Jim Rendon, author of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, says yes, indeed, it can (TIME 8/3/15, p. 29). Therapists and the general public have long been schooled in the notion that trauma is terrible and nothing more, he says, one that changes peoples’ lives for the worse and stays with them to death. Post-traumatic stress disorder, with its nightmares, hyper-vigilance and flashbacks, can be frightening to experience or live with in a loved one. What, then, is science telling Rendon that makes him believe that trauma sometimes can be anything...
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Strong Correlation Between High Weight and Bullying

“Being ‘fat’ is the most common reason children are bullied” according to Roni Caryn Rabin in “Extra weight makes kids a target for bullying” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 7/28/15, E20). I’m blogging on this subject for two reasons. The first is for readers who were bullied as children because they were fat to get validation on how hurtful and damaging it was. The second is so that readers can talk to their kids about what to do about such bullying whether they are perpetrators, witnesses, or victims of it. According to the article, fat as the most common reason for bullying comes from a study of “thousands of adults from four countries who, when asked why children are bullied, said the most common reason was not race, religion, physical disability or sexual orientation, but weight.” Most state anti-bullying laws don’t protect children of high weights, nor do federal laws “guarantee equal treatment of...
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Responding by Not Responding to Verbal Abuse

My previous blog about the stages of abuse (http://eatingdisordersblogs.com/?p=4864) will help you understand this one. Read it first, then return here to learn how to detach from hurtful comments in abusive relationships. In a Stage One response, you placate the abuser, believing you are at fault and this will stop the abuser. If he or she says something unkind about you, you mistakenly make the meaning that it is true. You think that the other person is right that you are “whatever” he or she says you are and respond by trying to correct this person’s negative view of you by acting nice—agreeing with him or her, promising that you’ll change, or apologizing because you’ve been bad. You reinforce the legitimacy of his or her illegitimate words by responding to them as if they’re true when they’re really false. In Stage Two, tired of being nice, turning the other cheek to...
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Standing up to Abuse

In 2009 I wrote a blog, Stages of Relationship Health, that I often refer to when discussing abuse. I suggest that you read it before reading this one. The blog describes three stages people move through to get out of an abusive relationship: 1) passivity and compliance, 2) anger, and 3) leaving the relationship. Talking with a client about anger at her narcissistic, abusive daughter and son-in-law, we established that she was moving from stage 1, passivity and compliance, to stage 2, anger, fluctuating between the two. Moreover, she was now thinking a good deal about stage 3, detaching from these relationships, a new focus. We discussed her shifts between stages 1 an 2 and what generated each response. She agreed that when she was in recall, an emotional state of fear triggered by memories of parental and spousal abuse, she became passive/compliant. But when she was in reality and in...
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More on Trauma and Eating Disorders

We have long known that a correlation between trauma and eating disorders exists, and now the picture is becoming clearer and clearer according to “The Power of Treating Eating Disorders and Trauma Simultaneously” by Megan Ross, Director of Program Development and Trauma Awareness at Timberline Knolls Treatment Center (Eating Disorder Hope’s March 2015 Professional Newsletter). There are two types of trauma: big “T” and little “t.” The former includes catastrophic events such as physical abuse or injury, sexual assault or abuse, or natural disasters. The latter are not so much about the severity of an occurrence, but about its painful, repetitive nature, like bullying and emotional abuse by parents or relatives. According to Ross, “Big ‘T’ trauma is more likely to be associated with bulimia, while little ‘t’ trauma is often associated with anorexia” and “the earlier the trauma occurs, the more intense the outcome. This is due to the state...
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Choose the Meaning of Events, Even Traumatic Ones

We’ve all had “bad” things happen to us and some of you have had “terrible” things or many “terrible” things befall you—sexual/verbal/physical abuse, poverty, neglect, rape, bullying, accidents, and other events which were out of your control. Does that mean you must experience pain and suffering due to these events? You likely believe that pain and suffering are inevitable by-products of such happenings and cannot be separated from the distress you (or anyone) will experience in their aftermath. If so, you’re wrong. Fact is, the meaning we make of trauma and “bad” things happening to us is the sole determinant of how much, if any, pain and suffering we experience. Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, LCSW, proves this point by relating the story of Sally, a single, outgoing, 35-year-old friend of hers. An avid runner, Sally was attacked by a knife-wielding, masked man on the way into her apartment building after a run....
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Trauma, The Body and Eating

Many disregulated eaters never learned to regulate affect. Knowing what happens to the nervous system due to major trauma or chronic family dysfunction may help you understand why you now turn to food when you’re upset and can teach you effective ways of re-regulating. Let’s start off by accepting that humans have very fragile and finely tuned nervous systems whose goal is to keep us out of harm’s way. When the system is triggered, we not only feel distress, but may lose the ability to deal with reality in a way that keeps us safe and healthy. Below are some wonderful insights from the May/June 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker on why we emotionally disregulate and ways to re-regulate to reduce distress. “We know now, without a doubt, that trauma affects the developing nervous system. When the primary caregiver is unwilling or unable to regulate an infant’s stress through attunement, the...
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Tolerating Abuse

If you’re often mistreated by one other or many others, you may have a high tolerance for abuse. This happens when you learn to put up with abuse to survive as a child. As an adult, not allowing yourself to be abused is certain to improve your eating. For example, one client complained about a life-long battle with her brother who had never liked her and always tried to push her around. These siblings grew up with abusive parents, so I wasn’t surprised that one of them grew up to be an abuser and the other to be an abusee. My client put up with her brother turning up at all hours of the night demanding to crash at her place, stealing money from her (he didn’t even have the excuse of being a drug addict), and using her as a dumping ground for his misery. Mostly she used our therapy...
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Finding Purpose

Reading an article about vets finding a way out of post-war depression, anxiety, and PTSD, I got to thinking about disregulated eaters’ fanatic absorption in food and weight obsessions and how they would benefit from finding a greater purpose in order to be done with that obsession. You don’t want your tombstone to read, “Spent a lifetime struggling to eat ‘normally’ and lose weight,” do you? Believe me, I understand the pain of compulsive eating and being or feeling overweight. But it cannot remain the be all and end all of life as some of you have made it. Although I encourage you to read my books and blogs and join my Food and Feelings message board, I’d rather see you out there doing things you’re passionate about which gives you a sense of satisfaction, belonging, and a focus greater than yourselves. There’s something highly unhealthy and excessively self-absorbing about spending...
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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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