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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 the glucocorticoid receptor that decides when the body’s stress system has produced enough of the stress-signaling hormone cortisol and helps shut that system down. Without enough of this receptor, the body and brain can’t reset after a stressful event.”

This dynamic matches up with what I’ve seen clinically, and explains why many of you turn to food. When you’re distressed, that is, emotionally disregulated, you have great difficulty returning your emotional system to its normal equilibrium and food has been your re-regulator. Meditation, relaxation, deep breathing, exercise, and mindfulness would all be more effective but, unlike eating, they take learning and practice to work.

The article makes another point regarding early abuse or neglect. When it happens in childhood, “To some degree, the message that you’re getting is that the environment is hostile,” says Gustavo Turecki, who directs the McGill Group for Suicide Studies in Montreal. “You’re being abused by people you’re supposed to trust…When they’re abusing you, the message you’re getting is [that] the world is one in which you can’t trust anyone. You’re always on alert.” That’s why you may trust food more than people.

Although it’s true that childhood abuse or neglect may have a deleterious affect on your emotional system, you’re by no means stuck with the damage for life because your brain is malleable and able to learn new responses in adulthood. This is why, though it may be difficult, learning and practicing new ways to reregulate your emotions without using food is a must. So, pick one new strategy and start practicing it today.