Understanding Eating Disorders as a Trauma Response: The Role of the Nervous System

Woman covering her faceEating disorders are complex and difficult to understand. What most people don’t realise is that often times, the root of these disorders is linked to trauma. Eating disorders can be a way for the body to cope with past traumas, as well as to manage the dysregulation of the nervous system. To gain a better understanding of this relationship between eating disorders and trauma, it is important to look at the role the nervous system plays in this trauma response. Understanding your eating disorders as a trauma response, as well as the role the nervous system plays, will help you to manage it better and find healthier ways to regulate the compulsions that comes with an eating disorder.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that are characterised by abnormal eating habits and a distorted body image. They can manifest in various ways, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or a combination of these behaviours. While eating disorders are often seen as a problem with food and weight, they are actually a response to underlying emotional distress and trauma. People with eating disorders use food and weight as a way to cope with their feelings, regulate their nervous system, and gain a sense of control over their lives. However, this coping mechanism is often ineffective and can lead to serious health consequences. Understanding the underlying trauma and the role of the nervous system is crucial for treating eating disorders effectively.

  1. Anorexia
    Anorexia is an eating disorder where individuals restrict their food intake and have an intense fear of gaining weight, even if they are underweight. 

  2. Bulimia
    Bulimia involves episodes of binge eating followed by purging through methods like vomiting or laxative abuse.

  3. Binge eating
    Binge eating disorder is characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food without the compensatory behaviours seen in bulimia.

Eating disorders can cause serious harm to your mental and physical health. If you are struggling with any type of eating disorder you should seek help immediately.

How are eating disorders a trauma response?

Trauma can include experiences such as emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect, or sexual assault. In response to trauma, our nervous system can become dysregulated, leading to various coping mechanisms, including disordered eating.

Disordered eating patterns, such as binge eating, purging, or restriction, can feel like a way to gain control or cope with overwhelming emotions. However, this response can ultimately worsen symptoms and lead to a cycle of disordered eating behaviour.

For some people food is a way to regulate their nervous systems. For example, they will eat until the feelings go away i.e. the nervous system has been regulated. In a way the food becomes the drug that numbs the pain or unwanted feelings. Whether those feelings are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or even just unease.  An because food made them feel better once they will keep on going back to it. For some people food has been the only constant in their lives, so it makes them feel safe, even if only for a little while.

It’s essential to note that not everyone who experiences trauma develops an eating disorder. However, for those who do, understanding the underlying trauma and the role the nervous system plays can be helpful in the treatment of eating disorders and finding healthier coping mechanisms.

The role of the vagus nerve in eating disorders

The nervous system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to regulate and coordinate our body’s responses to the environment – what is going on around you and in your mind or body. It is divided into two parts – the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord, while the PNS includes all the nerves that extend from the CNS to the rest of the body.

The vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the body, plays a crucial role in regulating many of the body’s vital functions, including heart rate, digestion, and breathing. It is part of the PNS and is responsible for controlling the parasympathetic response, which helps the body relax and recover after a stressful event. So if your nervous system is dysregulated you will not be able to relax or recover and will subconsciously look for other things that will provide this function for you.

In individuals with eating disorders, the vagus nerve can become dysregulated, leading to disruptions in digestion and metabolism. This can result in a host of physical symptoms, such as bloating, constipation, and acid reflux, which can further exacerbate the psychological distress that underlies eating disorders.

Studies have also shown that the vagus nerve can influence our emotional and psychological well-being. When the vagus nerve is functioning properly, it can help regulate our mood and promote feelings of calm and relaxation. However, in individuals with eating disorders, the vagus nerve may become overactive or underactive, leading to a dysregulated nervous system that can trigger anxiety, depression, and other emotional disturbances.

Overall, understanding the role of the vagus nerve in eating disorders is essential for developing effective treatment strategies that address the underlying causes of the condition. By processing the trauma through counselling and focusing on regulating the nervous system and restoring balance to the vagus nerve, individuals with eating disorders can find relief from physical and psychological symptoms and move towards long-term recovery.

Other ways to regulate the nervous system include practising mindfulness or meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, mind-body work, trauma release exercises (TRE) and progressive muscle relaxation. These practices can help individuals become more aware of their physical and emotional responses to stress and learn to regulate their nervous system more effectively. Additionally, therapy and medication are helpful in treating the underlying trauma and mental health conditions that contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Other ways to regulate the nervous system

As mentioned, fortunately there are other ways to regulate the nervous system beyond relying on disordered eating patterns. Here are a few things you can try:

  1. Breathing exercises
    One such method is practising deep breathing exercises, which have been shown to activate the vagus nerve and stimulate the relaxation response. This can include simple techniques like diaphragmatic breathing or more structured practices like pranayama in yoga.
  2. Mindfulness and meditation
    Another way to regulate the nervous system is through mindfulness and meditation, which involves cultivating present-moment awareness without judgment. Research has found that regular meditation practice can increase the density of grey matter in brain regions responsible for emotion regulation, memory, and learning. This can help individuals develop greater self-awareness and resilience in the face of stress and trauma.
  3. Physical activity
    Physical activity is also an effective way to regulate the nervous system and manage anxiety and depression symptoms. Exercise releases endorphins that boost mood and improve overall wellbeing. Finding an activity that feels enjoyable and fulfilling, whether it be yoga, hiking, or dancing, can be an effective way to support your recovery from an eating disorder and develop a positive relationship with your body.
  4. Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE)
    TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises) is a therapeutic technique designed to help individuals release tension and trauma stored in the body. It was developed by Dr. David Berceli, a bioenergetic therapist and trauma specialist.

    TRE involves a series of simple exercises that activate a natural shaking or tremor response in the body. The tremors are believed to be the body’s natural way of releasing stress and tension that has accumulated as a result of traumatic experiences or chronic stress. The exercises typically involve stretching and activating specific muscle groups to induce the tremors, followed by relaxation and rest.

  5. Mind-body work
    Mind-body work in trauma counselling refers to therapeutic approaches that recognise the interconnectedness of the mind and body in the experience and healing of trauma. It involves addressing both the psychological and physiological aspects of trauma to promote healing and recovery.

    Traumatic experiences can have a profound impact on both the mind and body. Trauma often gets stored in the body through sensations, physical tension, and somatic symptoms. Mind-body approaches in trauma counselling aim to help individuals access and process their traumatic experiences by integrating body-oriented techniques with traditional talk therapy.

    Examples of mind-body work are Somatic experiencing, Sensorimotor psychotherapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitasion) and Body-oriented grounding techniques.

Ultimately, healing from an eating disorder as a trauma response requires a holistic approach that addresses the underlying factors driving disordered eating patterns. By addressing the unprocessed trauma through counselling and understanding the role of the nervous system and engaging in practices that promote relaxation, self-awareness, and joy, individuals can begin to re-establish a sense of safety and balance in their lives and have control over their eating disorder and the choices they make.

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