When we first met, Carol shared how clearly she saw her path to recovery and the many resources she had in place to help manage her eating disorder behaviors when triggered. But then she asked a very important question: “If I know all the right things to do, why is it so difficult for me to follow through on my action plan?”
Carol bravely identified the need for what I call the “missing link” of most recovery plans from maladaptive or self-destructive behaviors: the need to heal unresolved trauma to restore the nervous system.
I explained to Carol that when trauma is resolved, one finally has the mastery over one’s nervous system to bypass triggers and fully implement the recovery action plan. According to Peter Levine (1997), founder of Somatic Experiencing (the body-based therapeutic modality I practice) trauma is not about an event, but the energy that gets locked in your body when the body experiences real or perceived threat. This “trauma energy” locked in our bodies creates imbalance in our nervous systems. Often, the path to recovery is not linear, and the ED voice can get louder as we recover. This happens because our nervous system is not yet comfortable with the “new normal” of life without behaviors.
“By resolving the trauma energy locked in the body, we begin to develop a stronger nervous system that can tolerate the ‘new normal,’ and life without behaviors becomes more comfortable over time.”
Chronic Stress and Eating Disorders
Carol, like many people with an eating disorder, has a history of chronic stress. Her childhood was filled with a combination of abuse and neglect. As a result, Carol’s nervous system constantly lives in a state of fight and flight, even when danger is not present. The eating disorder developed because Carol’s nervous system was looking for relief from the lack of safety she experienced during her childhood. She discovered early in her life that an eating disorder allowed her to escape the chaos and emotional pain she experienced at home. In my practice of working with eating disordered patients, I have yet to see an ED client who doesn’t have a history of chronic stress and trauma. EDs do not happen in a vacuum. They are the cumulative response/effect of long-term stress and trauma; ED behaviors are maladaptive ways to manage the aftermath of the chronic stress and trauma.
In the short-term, ED behaviors serve a purpose by giving a person relief from emotional pain. However, the long-term consequences lead to the vicious cycle of shame and disappointment, which are then managed (and triggered) by more ED behaviors. If you are nodding “yes” as you read this, you are not alone.
“I see this paradox in many of my patients with eating disorders, and the way to stop this cycle is to resolve trauma by bringing the body into the healing process for full nervous system recovery.”
Disordered Eating and The Nervous System
Have you ever experienced someone who is so upset that there is no way to reason with them? This is exactly what happens to us when our eating disorder takes over. What is really happening is that our nervous system feels out of control and cannot manage the intensity of its emotional states. And this is why we need to support our nervous system health to fully recover. When our nervous system feels calm, we have more capacity to make sound decisions about our behaviors. In order to recover, we need to teach the body to be able to tolerate the discomfort and safely move through the intense emotions we are experiencing. Somatic Experiencing, which I’ve practiced with many ED clients, does this by using the bodies survival instincts to move a person out of fight, flight, or freeze.
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