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The Brain in Childhood and Adulthood
If you had a highly a distressing childhood, you may have difficulty as an adult managing anxiety and stress, a trigger for food abuse. But by understanding how the brain works, you can reduce fear and anxiety and begin to eat more “normally.”
Through brain research over several decades, we’ve gained valuable insights into the formation and retention of memories, especially fear-based ones, and how they play out in life. This information is useful because it provides a makes-sense reason for why at times your level of anxiety is far too great for a situation. For a thorough explanation of emotions and brain function, read THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN by Joseph Ledoux.
As children, our brains are still developing and reach maturity somewhere in our late 20s. The part of our brain we rely on as children is its most primitive component—our fear response. As with other animals, our primary goal is to avoid pain and harm and be safe. The part of the brain that does the job of scouting for, recognizing, recording, and signaling perceived threats is the amygdala. As a child, when your neighbor’s dog bites you, the amygdala remembers. When you’re teased or bullied for being fat in grade school, the amygdala remembers. When you do something your parents don’t like and get shamed and blamed—or worse—the amygdala remembers. It stores such memories solely to alert you to similar future circumstances in order to keep you safe.
When we’re young, fear conditioning is all we have to rely on to protect us from harm. As we mature, the brain develops additional structures—the frontal lobes—that recognize context and complexity in order to assess, analyze, and problem solve when we’re faced with physical, psychic, and social threats. That means you no longer have to depend on fear as the sole component of the brain to protect you from threats. In fact, continuing to rely heavily on it actually makes you more vulnerable to harm. Better to use more sophisticated, comprehensive, extensive brain functions to help you stay safe.
If you’re an anxious person, you may still over-depend on the amygdala’s fear response, triggering primitive fight-or-flight mode and ignoring more appropriate and effective problem-solving abilities such as reason. Now you have the capacity to assess threats with higher order parts of your brain. You can determine that not every dog will bite you, that you can stand up to or disregard bullying and teasing, and that you can deal effectively with blaming and shaming. By being less reactive and more analytical, you give yourself a greater chance to avoid and reduce emotional eating.