Fortunately, the majority of physiological processes necessary to ensure our survival, from electrolyte balance to regulation of our heartbeat, happen outside our awareness. Our incredible machines are constantly making behind-the-scenes calculations and adjustments to keep us healthy and in balance.
If external adjustments are required, our body and brain send us signals, generally in the form of sensations. When our body needs fuel and proper nutrition, it signals us with hunger pangs and cravings for particular foods. Thirst is a signal that fluid levels are low. When we need sleep, we become drowsy. Our sensations vary in intensity. If we feel a mild ache in a knee, we may continue the tennis game; if we feel a sharper pain, we call it quits.
If all parts of your brain are communicating properly, it is easy to read your body’s signals and respond appropriately. Not only do you quickly perceive and make sense of your body’s various sensations, but you can also pick up more subtle cues using your intuition, or what some call the sixth sense.
Suppose you’re walking in an empty parking lot or on a dark street and have a sense that someone is behind you and perhaps following you. Or you step into an elevator and get a gut feeling that it isn’t safe to ride with the unsavory character already in there. Your heart beats faster as your nervous system sends out an alarm. You feel tension in your body as your brain stem, limbic area, and cortex work in concert with your body to assess the threat. You instinctively grab your keys, walk faster, scan the area for help, or pretend you forgot something and back out of the elevator. When the threat has passed, without your thinking about it, your body releases the tension, and you feel calmer.
If you have experienced chronically high levels of emotional arousal in your early years, the various regions of the brain may not be communicating properly, and the region responsible for fire alarms and vigilance may be running the show more often then you’d prefer. Not only do you risk misreading situations and perceiving danger in too many situations, but you also most likely fail to pick up subtle yet important cues about the world around you.
The Effects of Stressful Early Childhood Experiences
Early parental deprivation (even in mild forms) can lead to a decrease in the production of the brain chemicals necessary for experiencing a sense of well-being and joy. These chemical deficiencies can manifest themselves in behaviors such as fearfulness, hyperactivity, and withdrawal and can set a child up for an increased sensitivity to stressors for life.
Deprivation and stressful early childhood experiences can also lead to a chronic excess of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Stress hormones are a critical part of our response to biological or physiological threats, but high levels of these hormones in the womb, in infancy, and in early childhood can damage the brain.
Cortisol, in particular, can damage certain brain systems, like the midbrain dopamine system, and shrink others, like the hippocampus, a structure important for the processing of emotions and the verbal and narrative memories that help us make sense of our world.
When our world is chaotic and unpredictable, our stress apparatus gets wired for easy triggering, and we are more likely to be reactive, overactive, anxious, agitated, panicky, and depressed. Too much stress early in life can reduce a child’s ability to handle stress throughout life, which in turn can increase the risk of the child’s turning to external sources, such as food, for short-term relief, soothing, and comfort.
The Destructiveness of Chronic Stress
In the past quarter century, Western researchers have confirmed what ancient wisdom traditions have always asserted: our bodies do not exist in isolation from our minds. We can’t separate biology from psychology: everything is interconnected. Psychological stressors contribute to biological breakdown and vice versa. Stress affects virtually every tissue in the body.
Both external and internal stressors were contributing to Jan’s physical complaints of fatigue, migraines, fibromyalgia, gastric reflux, and an irritable bowel. Long, exhausting days at work, lack of sleep and exercise, and the consumption of alcohol and unhealthy convenience foods were putting strain on her body and causing her adrenal glands to secrete high levels of stress hormones. She was often anxious or depressed, and because her nervous system had been highly sensitized by early stressful experiences, she suffered from a heightened perception of pain.
Some of us handle stress better than others. Our ability to handle stress without turning to substances is determined not only by our innate constitution but also by the social support we experience early in life.
Hans Selye, a respected physician and researcher and the author of The Stress of Life, points out that people can become addicted to their own stress hormones. Some people who are habituated to high levels of external and internal stress from early childhood need a certain level of stress to feel alive. For these folks, a life that is calm and stress-free leaves them feeling boredom and emptiness. I was concerned that this might be the case with Jan.
Chronic unpleasant feelings and thoughts, even when pushed out of awareness, are an insidious form of stress, taxing our physiology and resulting in a myriad of physical ailments and “dis-ease” states. When we disconnect from the wisdom of our bodies and tune out our bodily symptoms, we fail to benefit from the messages they convey and the richness and joy life has to offer.
The Body Never Forgets
Jan’s needs for attunement in childhood were not met: she didn’t feel seen, heard, safe, or loved. Instead, her earliest experiences were often harsh, shaming, depressing, and sometimes terrifying. Her attempts to be close to her caregivers were thwarted.
She was exposed to chronic stress, and her home life did not allow for the healthy physiological responses of fighting or fleeing. She had to stay, and she coped with it as best she could by blocking out the hostility and neglect and acting as if they didn’t matter. Retreating to her private and safe world of books and food was an instinctive, resourceful, and adaptive way to survive.
But her body has not forgotten what she endured as a child. It has become wired to keep a constant watch for threats she regularly pushes out of her consciousness, prepared to ward off attack, emotional outbursts, rejection, and shame at any moment.
Areas of her brain like the prefrontal cortex are in a state of constant hypervigilance. This is why she runs for cover when her daughter has meltdowns and why she leaves the room when her patients are upset. And because she has few skills for processing her own emotions and bodily sensations, her main tranquilizers are food, alcohol, and anxiety medications.
As a grown woman, Jan is living a stifled and deadened emotional existence. It feels normal to her: it’s all she has ever known. While those around her — her daughters, husband, siblings, staff, and patients — are experiencing the routine emotional ups and downs of life, she is stranded in an emotional desert, and her body is keeping the score.
It’s Never Too Late to Start Feeling
Near the end of our session, Jan told me that she had seen other therapists in the past for her weight challenges and bouts of depression, boredom, and emptiness. Previous therapists, she said, had tried to get her to feel and asked her to track and write about her feelings. She had dropped out of therapy a few times because she couldn’t seem to experience her feelings, and she felt like a failure. When she tried group therapy, she witnessed other members “feeling all over the place” but still felt blocked.
I reassured Jan that I wouldn’t try to get her to feel; rather, we would work on enhancing her right-brain awareness of bodily sensations, such as hunger and fullness signals and muscle tension and relaxation. If Jan could become more aware of her bodily sensations and able to stay with and tolerate them, they would offer her important messages about the state of her internal world. We would allow her body to tell us her story and lead us to the pain she had long ago learned to push away and stuff down.
I commended Jan for finding resourceful ways to handle an emotionally painful and difficult childhood. When I praised her for her strength and resiliency, she began to feel something behind her eyes that she said “could be sadness.” She had experienced so little praise in her life that this little tidbit had begun to open the floodgates. It was clear that I could help Jan access her inner world not only by offering her the attunement she so desperately needed and deserved, but also by highlighting her strengths.
The Way to Vitality
I explained to Jan that slowly and gently learning to pay mindful attention to her bodily sensations would help her reside more in her body. Over time, we would carefully draw out the sensory information that had been stored in her body and frozen by trauma. She could learn to connect these sensations to any associated emotions, as well as to current or past physical and psychological events.
As we nurtured and strengthened an underdeveloped set of circuits in Jan’s brain, she would be better able to tolerate and regulate her emotions and soothe and calm her nervous system. This would give her more ease and comfort in handling other people’s emotions.
Feeling more connected to herself in this way could also help her feel more comfortable in her body. Jan’s earlier connection to her body through sports was a resource that she could draw on. Exercise that she enjoyed would be a way for her to reconnect to her body and perhaps to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch, including more intimacy with her husband.
If, like Jan, you were exposed to severe attunement failures or early traumatic experiences, an overall sense of threat has been stored in your nervous system and in every cell of your body. But it’s never too late to release this locked-up energy, increase your zest for life, and reduce your attraction to food for comfort.
Jan learned to use mindfulness to become more aware of her bodily sensations, stay present to them, and allow them to inform her as they shifted and dissipated. As her tolerance for unpleasant feeling states increased, she began to release and free the energy that had been frozen inside her. As her vitality increased, she felt better equipped to transcend her painful history and transform her life.
Copyright ©2018 by Julie M. Simon.
Reprinted with permission from New World Library
When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating
by Julie M. Simon
If you regularly eat when you’re not truly hungry, choose unhealthy comfort foods, or eat beyond fullness, something is out of balance. When Food Is Comfort presents a breakthrough mindfulness practice called Inner Nurturing, a comprehensive, step-by-step program developed by an author who was herself an emotional eater. You’ll learn how to nurture yourself with the loving-kindness you crave and handle stressors more easily so that you can stop turning to food for comfort. Improved health and self-esteem, more energy, and weight loss will naturally follow.
About the Author
Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach with more than twenty-seven years of experience helping overeaters stop dieting, heal their relationships with themselves and their bodies, lose excess weight, and keep it off. She is the author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and the founder of the popular Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program. For more information and inspiration, visit Julie's website at www.overeatingrecovery.com.