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How Being Stuck in the Chaos Cycle Harms You


Many dysregulated eaters were raised in chaotic environments and suffer from the emotional and physical aftermath today—hypervigilance, excessive body tension, substance abuse, high anxiety, control issues, denial, lack of self- or other- trust, panic attacks, poor interpersonal choices, fear of abandonment, indecisiveness, stress-related physical conditions, perfectionism, and difficulty calming down and feeling care-free. 

Talking with clients about their experiences growing up in chaos helps them understand what happens in this debilitating cycle. One was raised in an upper-class city family with three siblings. Mom was severely depressed and Dad, though often loving, suffered from alcoholism. My client recalls few occasions when Dad was sober, and Mom wasn’t feeling depressed. Instead, she remembers what she calls chaos: feeling anxious going out because Dad might over-drink and embarrass the family, never knowing if Mom would be together enough to remember to pick her up after soccer practice, fearing walking into their apartment and finding herself in the middle of one of their fights.

Another client grew up very poor, the eldest of seven children. Mom was hospitalized with psychosis at least twice that my client recalls, and Dad was in and out of their lives depending on whether he was employed or unemployed. When Mom and Dad weren’t around, it fell to my client and a kind, elderly neighbor to take care of his younger siblings. My client tried to do his schoolwork and loved school because it was so orderly but spent most of his time tending to his siblings and, sadly, his mother, and working after school to help make ends meet. He recalls little of his childhood except having a constant feeling of apprehension and a knot in his stomach.

The cycle both clients were stuck in has three phases: 1) anticipation of chaos, 2) experience of chaos, and 3) recovery from chaos. In phase one, anticipation of chaos, even when things were going well, they walked around with high anxiety, never knowing when the other shoe was going to drop. This keyed up, can’t-let-your-guard-down feeling was ever present and made it difficult to fully enjoy life. No predictability meant no control. In phase two, experience of chaos, they felt buffeted by events with no way to stop them which led to helplessness, depression, and despair. In phase three, recovery from chaos, they felt calmer and sought normalcy but rarely achieved it due to anticipation of when things would go awry (phase one) again. 

If this cycle sounds familiar to you, consider that it may be contributing to your eating problems or weight focus to re-regulate your emotions. Therapy can help end this cycle.