In our superficial world, so many of the people who should know better - like fitness instructors, naturopaths, and other ‘alt-health experts’ - like to make a very big deal about healthy eating. On the one hand, they are absolutely right that the quality and quantity of the food we eat does profoundly affect our feelings of health and well-being.
MSG, for example, is known to strip the myelin sheaths from nerves in the brain, which can literally lead to brain damage. Also, if we aren’t absorbing enough B-vitamins (which is not the same thing as just eating enough B-vitamins), that can also leave us feeling very tired, depressed and overwhelmed.
So yes, eating healthy is definitely a good thing, and should be followed as much as possible without developing any fanatical food tendencies.
But here’s the thing: no part of the body is more responsive to emotional stress, and particularly trauma-induced emotional stress, than the stomach and the alimentary canal. That means that repressed emotions are nearly always at the bottom of eating issues, so ‘willpower’ by itself simply can’t fix the problem at its root.
I’ll set out a little of the science explaining what is going on physiologically in the body and why at the end of the post, but first, let’s take a look at some of the common ways this link between eating habits and C-PTSD can play out.
EMOTIONAL NEGLECT AND OVER-EATING
If someone grows up in a home with emotionally-absent parents, it’s very unlikely that any expression of strong, negative emotion (especially by the child) will be tolerated. This is usually because the parents themselves are disconnected from their own negative emotions, and find themselves being triggered into a very distressing fight-flight-freeze-fawn response when faced with their child’s strong emotions.
Their inner critic (aka the evil inclination) will also waste no time piling on a whole bunch of toxic shame and fear on the triggered parent, causing them to react in a very harsh way to their child’s display of negative emotion.
If the parent is a ‘fight’ type, they’ll lash out with angry words, fists, or both. If ‘flight’, they’ll literally run away from the kid, and remember something ‘urgent’ they have to do. If ‘freeze’, they’ll turn their music / movie up to full volume, or do whatever else they need to do to ‘drown out’ the problem like pouring a whisky or popping a pill. And if they’re ‘fawn’ types, they’ll nip next door to go and baby-sit for their poor, struggling neighbour instead of dealing with their own poor, struggling kid.
Point is, when a kid gets taught that feeling strong emotions, and especially strong negative emotions, is somehow dangerous, bad, ‘wrong’, or will unleash punishment upon them, they quickly learn to stop doing that.
There are many ways that strong negative feelings can be pushed down, or ‘repressed’, but two key habits are holding the breath, and trying to ‘self-soothe’ the negative feeling with food, instead. But because the feeling is being pushed down, instead of being acknowledged and aired-out, it can sometimes take an awful lot of food to try and keep it ‘under the surface’!
When this same ‘negative feeling’ is triggered in someone with C-PTSD as an adult, they will automatically reach for the cake / chocolate / carbs to continue trying to keep it ‘down’. It has nothing whatsoever to do with willpower, and everything to do with a triggered reaction to stress that causes a ‘negative feeling’ to emerge, that the person has learnt must be squashed at all costs.
Once the person with C-PTSD slowly learns how to acknowledge the negative feelings they are repressing, and learns safe ways of expressing those feelings in a way that won’t overwhelm them, the need for the food disappears by itself.
LOSS OF APPETITE AND FEAR
Another very common trauma-based reaction to eating occurs when a traumatised person loses their appetite. This is a physiological reaction to fear, and again, people with C-PTSD are often hair-triggered to over-react to perceived threats in their environment.
While someone who doesn’t have C-PTSD won’t be taken out by their boss’s bad mood, a traumatised person may well take it as a sign that the boss doesn’t like them, and that their job is on the line etc, with all the attendant fear and stress that will then trigger internally.
FOOD IS THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO ‘SELF-SOOTHE’
I’m giving just two of the more common ways C-PTSD can affect our eating habits here, but psychiatrist John Bradshaw really summed things up when he said: “Almost everyone who grows up in a dysfunctional family has an eating disorder.”
The main point of this post is that if you’re having serious issues with food, it’s almost certainly a sign that there were aspects of your childhood and your family dynamics that left you traumatised, and with some form of C-PTSD to deal with.
Food is the first way we were able to try to ‘self-soothe’ when we felt abandoned, bewildered, lost, hurt or terrified as a very small child. As adults, we need to try to unclog all the negative feelings that are hiding underneath our issues with food, and to teach ourselves how to ‘self-soothe’ in healthier ways.
(At the end of this series on C-PTSD, I will do a post, or even a couple of posts, discussing the practical ways to do this, BH.)
FOOD, STRESS AND THE VAGUS NERVE
Ok, so now we’re ready to understand a bit more WHY the digestive system can get so out of whack when we’ve been traumatised. The plain English version is that when we get stressed / fearful / threatened / attacked our bodies tense up as a result, and the first place that ‘tenses’ is the alimentary canal.
That’s why people can get butterflies in the stomach, stomach aches, or diarrhoea when they feel stressed / scared / anxious.
Biologically, there’s a long nerve in the body called the VAGUS NERVE that connects the brain, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines. This vagus nerve governs the body’s viscera, and it reacts very strongly to the cues we’re given from the external environment, such as faces, expressions, body language etc.
Researcher Stephen Porges first coined the term: ‘neuroception’ to describe the physiological process of evaluating the relative danger and safety we feel in our environment that primarily occurs in what’s called THE VENTRAL VAGAL COMPLEX, or VVC.
When we’re socially engaged with others in a positive, healthy way, the Ventral Vagal Complex sends messages to our heart and lungs to slow the heart rate and breathe more deeply, helping us to feel calm, peaceful, happy and relaxed.
But, if we experience some sort of ‘threat’ or danger, the first place that registers is on our faces and in our voices: we start sending out ‘help!’ signals to our environment, to see who is going to respond, step in, and help us to feel safe again.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
If no-one responds to our first cries for help – in whichever way they manifest themselves – then the body’s Fight or Flight response comes online next.
This is regulated by the Limbic System, and is under the jurisdiction of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The heart beats faster, we breathe more shallowly to innervate our body with oxygen, preparing us to run away from the problem or fight it off.
If this next stage doesn’t work to solve our problem and help us escape the ‘danger’ or threat we’ve identified, then the last ‘emergency’ physiological reaction (FREEZE) kicks in, which is governed by the body’s: DORSAL VAGAL COMPLEX. This system of nerves goes down below the diaphragm, to the stomach, kidneys and intestines.
It dramatically reduces the body’s metabolism, leading to a state of FREEZE, dissociation or collapse. To quote Bessel Van der Kolk, writing in The Body Keeps the Score:
“This system is most likely to engage when we are physically immobilized, as when we are pinned down by an attacker or when a child has no escape from a terrifying caregiver…Once this system takes over, other people and even we ourselves, cease to matter.”
THE BIOLOGY of C-PTSD
When someone is being traumatized, or when they are having a ‘flashback’ to an experience of being traumatized, as very commonly happens with adults with C-PTSD, this is how the body responds:
First, the frontal lobes of the brain shut down, which is what’s sometimes called ‘disengaged executive functioning’. At the same time, the body’s pituary gland starts sending out messages to the whole of the body that it has to be primed to defend itself, and protect itself at all costs.
These messages are sent to:
1. The facial muscles – that contort into a threatening, angry expression designed to ‘scare off’ attackers.
2. They thyroid gland.
3. To the heart, lung and larynx, priming these organs to start producing more oxygen (shallow breathing) ready for fight-or-flight.
4. To the stomach and GI tract – effectively stealing the energetic ‘juice’ required for non-essential digestion of food, causing the stomach processes to slow down or stop completely.
5. To the adrenal glands – triggering the release of stress hormones. All of this causes some severe disruption to the body’s healthy functioning, leading to any number of unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even unbearable physical sensations, feelings and issues.
The traumatized person can be so busy trying to ‘manage’ their physiological symptoms and pain – which have often been going on for years and years, so that they often don’t even register their ‘permanent stomachache’ etc consciously – that it leaves very little energy over for anything else, both physically and emotionally.
Again, to quote Bessel van der Kolk: “Attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and other autoimmune diseases….
“Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scars.”
And of course, small children are the least able to move or do something to protect themselves, which is why so many of the people who grow up in dysfunctional families develop C-PTSD, and why so many people with C-PTSD have eating disorders and other digestive and physical issues.