Traumatic childhoods, those that involve chronic neglect, emotional/physical/sexual abuse, or sudden abandonment by a parent, make it harder to recover from eating disorders. These occurrences which happened decades ago continue to have major reverberations in our current lives and often get played out in difficulties with food, self concept, relationships, and impairment of effective life skills.

I regularly explain to clients who are frustrated with and disappointed in themselves that people like them who’ve experienced serious, denied, unattended, ongoing or intermittent emotional wounding in childhood will take longer to work through their eating (and other) problems than people who did not suffer in these ways. This conclusion is based on decades of scientific research with trauma survivors, but clients rarely believe me. Instead, they beat themselves up for making the same mistakes with food or relationships over and over and easily fall prey to hopelessness.

If you experienced trauma, abuse or ongoing neglect in childhood and have eating problems, please understand that healing old emotional wounds and improving your relationship with food will take a long time, maybe a lifetime. You cannot continue to measure your progress against that of friends, coworkers, or even other family members. We all start out in different places. You cannot constantly remind yourself how long you’ve been in therapy and scold yourself for not moving ahead more quickly. You cannot put excessive pressure on yourself to change, then be furious or despairing when you don’t. Self-abuse only slows down recovery.

Here’s why patience and compassion are key. Simply put, early on trauma shaped your relationship with yourself, others, and food through creating neural pathways in your brain, and that template of thought, action and reaction needs to fade and be replaced by a healthier template. Healing comes from having positive relationships (that’s why a good therapist is so important) which create new neural pathways and alternate ways of thinking, acting, and reacting. This is change on a biological, cellular level. In order not to get triggered and turn to abusing food (or yourself), you will need to engage in healthy thinking and behavior repeatedly until they forge new pathways in your brain.

If you are a trauma survivor or had a dysfunctional childhood, please be patient and ever so kind to yourself. Have faith. Keep working at getting healthier. It will happen in its own time, I promise you, just not necessarily on your timetable