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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, or have multiple physical/medical problems which severely impact your life, you do yourself no good by envying the greater progress others have made on resolving eating or persistent weight problems. They started from a different place than you did and may have fewer issues and more tools to get better. This is unfair, but nevertheless true. Just as piano players with short fingers or basketball players of small stature are at a disadvantage, we all come into the game with different skills and challenges.
On the other hand, how to explain that some disregulated eaters with horrendous childhoods make more progress in resolving food issues than folks who have had relatively little strife in childhood? I’ve made a similar observation in various settings in which I’ve worked—at a mental health center, a methadone clinic, on an inpatient unit. Sometimes people who had no trauma, abuse or neglect in their childhoods get stuck and stay stuck, while folks who’ve suffered grave mistreatment make amazing strides and either manage their difficulties quite effectively or overcome them.
Part of the answer to how this happens is through resilience (the temperament with which a child is born), intervening positive experiences, or having a mentor or caring person in even the worst of childhoods. Although a history of family mistreatment can be a strong predictor of substantial difficulty recovering from food problems, anyone can defy the odds and be the exception to the rule. In spite of the past, in large measure, success is in your hands.