Updated: Nov 4, 2022
When bingeing is just an unconscious way to calm the nervous system DOWN.
Everyone enjoy this month’s guest post by Stefanie Bonastia, below! <3
Something that doesn’t get talked about much, but that most of my binge eating clients seem to have in common, is the experience of a dysregulated nervous system.
When someone has a history of unprocessed trauma, they often find themselves easily triggered and sent into a state of overwhelm. (Trauma is defined here as “an experience or experiences where the nervous system is pushed beyond its capacity to cope with the event,” and can occur with anything from sexual abuse to emotionally chaotic childhoods.)
The nervous system gets caught in the “on” position, bracing itself for what it perceives as an impending threat based on past experiences, and can’t turn itself “off,” or downregulate. As a result, the person feels like they are in a chronic state of fight-or-flight, and are sometimes seen as highly emotional, sensitive, or temperamental individuals.
Being stuck in this heightened stress-response has been described to me as “feeling up in the air,” “all over the place,” “dissociated from myself,” “spinning,” and “disoriented.” One client stated: “I have an awareness that my heart is beating faster and blood is rushing to my head. I feel anxious, but it’s hard for me to recognize in the moment because nothing is actually wrong on the outside.”
One way to calm down a hypervigilant nervous system, especially when triggered to it’s “on” state, is to use grounding techniques that bring the person back to the safety of the present moment. Things like weighted blankets, cold showers, and massage are some ways to access a feeling of groundedness when we feel “up in the air.”
However, these techniques are usually learned adaptive responses. If someone doesn’t realize dysregulation is happening to them or if it hasn’t been formally named (which is often the case), the person has no trusted anchor upon which to center themselves, and will reach for any coping mechanism that feels solid, heavy, and grounding to return to a state of physical calm.
One such coping mechanism is bingeing.
Despite the mental distress created by eating large amounts of food (due to beliefs about weight gain, which is essentially an issue of fatphobia), the physical discomfort that results from a binge also provides refuge.
A full, heavy stomach is grounding. It pulls you into the present moment and roots your body in the ground. It’s gravity.
Let’s give this some context.
My client, Jessica, grew up in a volatile household where her father had unpredictable outbursts of anger in response to his own unresolved emotional triggers. As a child, Jessica remembers being highly disturbed by the volume of her father’s shouting. She recalls feeling jarred by the noisy abruptness of his anger, how it would come out of nowhere and jolt her from the focus of doing her homework or watching TV. Over time, Jessica says she retreated emotionally and disconnected from herself to get through the emotional dysregulation of the episodes. She speaks of those years as the first memory of feeling “thrown,” “chaotic,” and “dissociated.”
Now, as an adult, Jessica lives at home with her partner and twin boys. Her father is no longer a central figure in her life, but the emotional trauma from her childhood still lives in her body.
When Jessica comes home from a quiet day at work and enters the house to high-volume toddlers, she feels “thrown.” The sudden onset of noise, innocuous as it may be in reality, reminds Jessica’s body of the sudden onset of anger and shouting of her father. Her nervous system becomes hijacked outside of her awareness. She becomes untethered. She moves into a fight-or-flight state that feels baseless and over-reactive.
To soothe herself back down to a calm state, Jessica reaches for food and starts consuming it en masse, calling it “stress eating.” More accurately, she is filling up her stomach to FEEL her way back to the present moment. When her stomach is uncomfortable and heavy, she can re-orient herself because the physical state of her body can think of nothing but her current sensations, the safety of her present moment.
People who binge eat (as well as people who purge, cut, or feel addicted to sex) may be sensation-seeking individuals who require a great deal of physical stirring to move themselves from an unregulated state to a regulated one. Even if the methods are ultimately misguided, the instinct and resourcefulness here is worth noting.
The unregulated state (feeling chaotic and ungrounded) is bound up with past trauma and fear, while the regulated state (feeling calm and grounded) has access to the present moment, where it can be reassured that it is, in fact, safe.
What if we saw our binges as a resourceful way to self-soothe instead of blaming ourselves for self-sabotage and gluttony? Without the advantage of having a more evolved coping response, eating may be the quickest route your body sees to calm itself down. To protect you.
Not only does eating provide grounding through fullness, but also through rhythm and texture and taste. It provides input to all of the senses. It stands up to much of the criteria for sensory therapy, which aims to bring organization to a dysregulated internal system so the body can function effectively in its environment. (As an occupational therapist, I have seen sensory therapy most often used with children to treat nervous system disruption, I believe it also applies here and is probably an overlooked method of treatment for adults.)
If we can understand our behaviors as ways that our body is trying to protect us, we might be able to offer ourselves greater compassion.
And then, with compassion, we might offer ourselves other ways of coping with our heightened emotional states instead of berating ourselves for doing the best we could with what we were given.
If you resonate with having an overactive nervous system that throws you into a state of groundlessness, please know there are other ways to learn to calm your body down.
The next time you find yourself in a hypervigilant state with an urge to binge, try the following exercise* to bring mindfulness and curiosity into the moment:
Become mindful that your body is IN a state of hyper-arousal.
Bring your attention to your physical body. What do you notice? Is your heart beating rapidly, or is there tightness in your chest? Do you have a sense of being “zoned out,” or feel like you are watching your body move from a distance?
Brainstorm a few ways you can bring yourself back into the present moment with a grounding technique. Some people find things like massage, weighted blankets, showers, ice or cold water, singing, chanting, lifting weights, or deep breathing to be helpful. Offer yourself a variety of sensations through touch, smell, sound, vibration, and proprioception (awareness of the body’s position in space). Sometimes just sitting or laying down on the floor can be a useful way to literally feel grounded.
Gently bring your attention back to your body as you integrate one or more of these techniques. See if your body processes feel slower or if you feel more relaxed. Many people experience regulation as a slowing down and/or a return into your body. You may hear your thoughts more clearly or feel more able to “think straight.”
If the binge urge persists, you can allow it. The grounding experience may be complementary, at first.
*If your body is chronically underfed or if you are under your weight set point, attempts to reduce bingeing will likely be unsuccessful until the restriction is addressed. Also as always, consult a therapist or trauma-informed medical professional if you have a history of trauma or emotional distress that would benefit from more in-depth processing and healing.
A dysregulated nervous system is as valid an experience as any other physical malady, like a headache or an upset stomach.
Experiment with your own personal brand of self-soothing and see what works best for you. This may take many, many attempts! You are essentially teaching your body how to calm itself down in new, unexplored ways, so there will be a learning curve. Over time, you can learn how to move your nervous system from “on” to “off” with greater instinct and ease. At some point, you may even experience gratitude toward your binge response for alerting you and guiding you to this important message from your body!
Remember your binges are serving a purpose, so you (and your body) deserve compassion for being so incredibly wise and resourceful.
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