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Many disregulated eaters never learned to regulate affect. Knowing what happens to the nervous system due to major trauma or chronic family dysfunction may help you understand why you now turn to food when you’re upset and can teach you effective ways of re-regulating. Let’s start off by accepting that humans have very fragile and finely tuned nervous systems whose goal is to keep us out of harm’s way. When the system is triggered, we not only feel distress, but may lose the ability to deal with reality in a way that keeps us safe and healthy. Below are some wonderful insights from the May/June 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker on why we emotionally disregulate and ways to re-regulate to reduce distress.
“We know now, without a doubt, that trauma affects the developing nervous system.
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.” (“When victims victimize others,” Noel Larson, page 27) Hence, when you’re upset, you may eat to lessen a hyperoused state or to increase sensation and feel something, even disgust at yourself.
It’s often difficult to put trauma feelings into words. “If the experiences are traumatic,
if the emotions exceed the client’s affect tolerance, then the parts of the brain needed for differentiating past from present go offline and become inaccessible.” That’s why you sometimes don’t know what or can’t identify what you’re feeling and find yourself eating when you’re not hungry. (“Putting the pieces together,” Janina Fisher, page 35)
Mindfulness is highly useful in re-regulating emotions. “…mindful concentration
activates the medial prefrontal cortex and decreases activity in the amygdala—which, in turn, eases regulation of the autonomic nervous system.” The amygdala is where traumatic and upsetting memories are stored. Reduce activity in triggering these memories, and re-regulation is more likely to occur. (“Putting the pieces together,” Janina Fisher, page 39) By understanding how trauma affects your nervous system, you have greater opportunity for re-regulating it.
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