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Hyperarousal and Dissociation and Emotional Eating

Many dysregulated eaters bounce back and forth between two states: wildly emotional or detached and unfeeling. Both are a product of traumatic experiences and can lead to mindless, emotional and binge eating. By understanding why this happens to your mind/body, you will be better able to recognize these states, cope with them more effectively, and manage your eating more appropriately.

These states, often the result of emotional, physical or sexual trauma, are hyperarousal and dissociation. The former is what we call the “fight or flight” response and is defined as “a state of increased psychological and physiological tension marked by such effects as reduced pain tolerance, anxiety, exaggeration of startle responses, insomnia, fatigue and accentuation of personality traits.” (“Hyperarousal” by Eileen Bailey, Health Central, Hyperarousal occurs when you’re highly agitated and so overwhelmed with emotion that you can’t think straight. Hyper-vigilance, or heightened fear, often goes along with hyperarousal.

Dissociation is feeling numb when you should be experiencing emotion. It’s when your experience seems unreal or surreal, as if you’re watching yourself, rather than experiencing your life. You may feel detached from what is going on or as if you’re sleepwalking through a fog. (“Reexperiencing/Hyperaroused and Dissociative States in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” by Ruth A. Lanius, MD, PhD and James W. Hopper, PhD, Psychiatric Times: 10/31/08,

These states may occur when the brain is overwhelmed with painful stimuli—in abusive situations, serious accidents, death of a loved one, rape, war, natural disasters and the like. They are the body’s natural reaction to try to protect you: in one way, making you more aware of what’s going on, but also dulling the pain you’re feeling in reaction to it. While it’s appropriate to experience these states during a crisis, it’s damaging for them to occur when you’re safe emotionally or physically, and these states are what I see in many dysregulated eaters long (even decades) after traumatic events have taken place.

If you often feel emotionally numb, are fearful and anxious nearly all the time, react highly emotionally to situations that don’t warrant heightened sensitivity, I encourage you to find a psychotherapist to talk to. You’ll feel better in the long run and most likely find your emotional and mindless eating subside. Don’t be embarrassed or think that you should be strong enough to handle whatever caused these states. Being strong doesn’t mean handling everything yourself. It means finding the courage to get support so that these responses are no longer a part of your life.