Written By Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC, Clinical Director at Green Mountain at Fox Run’s Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating
When treating Binge Eating Disorder, it’s quite common to identify trauma as one of the root causes of emotional overeating and binge eating. Food does more than simply satiate hunger, among those who suffer from binge and emotional eating. Food and eating become:
- A coping mechanism for easing painful emotions
- A protection against future traumatic stress
- The reason for avoiding situations that cause fear
How Our Brains Respond to Trauma
When people experience traumatic events, the fight-flight-freeze response is activated at such an intense level that our systems become hyper-aroused and hypervigilant in an effort to protect ourselves from future traumas.
That hypervigilance usually gets translated into distorted beliefs about our worlds, again, as a protective measure. Much like a war veteran might have a startle response to a loud sound, so too do those who experience trauma develop distorted beliefs. Beliefs such as “loud sound = enemy fire” (in the case of the war veteran) or “staying home to binge keeps me from having to go out on dates” (in the case of binge eating) can, at times, only be explained by traumatic experiences.
A Perfect Storm
Often eating becomes the way out of such intense fears and belief systems, especially if eating and food have been made an issue in earlier life. Sometimes families put great importance on eating the “right” vs. “wrong” foods or on having the “ideal” body type. When this is the case, there is already stress and importance placed on eating and food.
It’s in these “perfect storm” scenarios that we most often see people turning to food to escape the dissonance created by trauma, among other things. For example, turning to food as a form of self-medicating difficult, trauma-based emotions; or as a protection, perhaps by attempting to add layers to the body to keep from being exposed; or perhaps eating to avoid situations that may trigger the trauma, like socially related situations.
We know this as an ego-dystonic behavior, in which an individual engages in behavior that is incompatible with his / her beliefs. The result of this behavior only feeds the struggle, in that binge eating to cope with trauma leads to increased dissonance, shame and guilt. These further distressing emotions, in turn, lead a person to return to their coping mechanism; in this scenario, it’s another episode of binge eating. The cycle continues.
Mindfulness as a Path Towards True Healing
We see this painful cycle time and again at our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating. But we also see true healing among our clients, which happens from the inside out.
When body size becomes a target of healing and people turn to dieting, weight loss programs and surgery, only the external concern is addressed…and, incidentally, is rarely successful. Instead, true healing for those who turn to food after trauma means moving towards the body in a different and more tolerable way. It means plunging into mindfulness, and often therapy.
- The many facets of mindfulness address the many facets of disordered eating.
- Mindfulness allows us to tolerate our many emotions, even the distressing ones, as opposed to numbing them with food.
- Mindfulness allows us to be present with our eating, as opposed to dissociated.
- Mindfulness helps us be grounded and present with our choices, specifically food choices, as opposed to impulsive.
- Most importantly, mindfulness helps develop the very much needed self-compassionate voice that is essential to healing the deep shame that often accompanies disordered eating.
Traumatic stress, especially when coupled with emotional and binge eating behaviors, requires gentle, compassionate support to heal. And we know that the body can very much be an ally in healing the often frozen state people find themselves in with this struggle. By engaging in a mindfulness practice, whether through meditation or mindful movement such as yoga, tai-chi, qi-gong, etc., people can gently and tolerably begin the healing process.
Trauma-Informed Strategies for Focused, Effective Treatment
Most of the women we treat at the Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating have experienced loss or trauma…whether during childhood or simply from living in a plus-sized body in today’s appearance-obsessed culture.
We have learned through neuroscience that empowering our clients to self-regulate their own arousal systems can put them in charge of their physical and emotional states. Rhythmic activities such as dance, tai chi and drumming integrates the senses to help heal the frozen sense of isolation and separation.
Furthermore, physical empowerment is encouraged through movement activities such as kickboxing.
Lastly, mindful meditation is taught and practiced daily.
Safe spaces for client narratives and emotional expression are essential…as is evidence-based therapy AND relationships. Teaching the language of the inner experience while transforming the inner critic into a self-compassionate advocate supports the path to healing.