Image by Debbie Digioia
If you were a victim of trauma in childhood, it’s essential to understand that you may have a more complex set of problems than a dysregulated eater who hasn’t had traumatic experiences. This fact was brought home to me while I was reading “How Trauma Can Make a Victim a Victimizer: Using Empathy to Help Abusers Make Amends” by Noel Larson (Psychotherapy Networker online 7/12/16).
Childhood trauma—including neglect and sexual/emotional/physical abuse—more often than not, produces a dysregulated nervous system. Larson tells us that, “When the primary caregiver is unwilling or unable to regulate an infant’s stress through attunement, the child suffers extreme anxiety, even terror. The child who doesn’t get the message that everything’s going to be all right can grow up unable to regulate his or her own affect. Without attunement, the infant’s brain has two major options: hyperarousal or dissociation. A hyperaroused child’s world is dominated by hypervigilance, emotional reactivity, and vulnerability to intrusive imagery.”
“A more dissociative child experiences the numbing of emotions, diminished sensation, disabled cognitive processing, and lack of empathy…Dissociation [is] the brain’s way of protecting itself from feeling crushed by a constant sense of overwhelming danger and imminent catastrophe. While dissociation in all its forms clearly has survival value for developmentally traumatized individuals, it also leads to developmental dead spots—areas of personality development that are stuck in a time warp that coincides with childhood experiences of trauma.” An abuse survivor may also experience these states intermittently, becoming hyper-aroused one minute and numb to emotions the next.
Emotional hyper-arousal may trigger you to eat when you’re not hungry and your best intentions are to stay away from food. Your feelings may be so overwhelming that you can’t think straight enough to problem solve or distract yourself and only crave instant relief. Alternately, you may not feel any specific emotion because you’ve become habitually numb to experiencing distressing ones, but may still feel oddly unsettled without being able to identify why this may be or what affect you’re feeling. That is, your nervous system may still be dysregulated, propelling you toward mindless eating.
If you frequently experience hyper-arousal, dissociated affect, or regularly eat emotionally, I urge you to get help from a trauma or eating disorders therapist. A therapist will teach you how to re-regulate your nervous system’s reactions to emotional distress so that you have a better shot at eating “normally.”