Bessel van der Kolk is a pioneer in understanding how trauma impacts our well being and how to bring healing to the fractured places inside. His work began in the 70s, working with Vietnam veterans experiencing what came to be called PTSD.
His book, The Body Keeps the Score, is considered a bible for trauma healing. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I highly recommend it.
I remember reading Bessel’s book while waiting for my daughter while she was getting a facial at a spa. The spa’s waiting room was a quiet, pale, womb like space with comfy couches and soft lighting.
I opened the book and soon was sobbing quietly, my body curled into the cushions and my face in my hands. Places inside felt such relief in knowing, “There’s nothing wrong with me. This is what I’ve been carrying.”
Sixteen years ago, when I began studying attachment theory – our understanding of our biological need for contact and closeness, and how our closest relationships shape us – I was following a hunch that overeating and binge eating were something more than ‘bad habits’ or something to be cured with food plans and behavioral modification.
That ‘something more’ turned out to be our unfolding understanding of trauma and development.
The good news, for you, and for all of us, is that this understanding brings so much relief, help and support if you struggle with binge or overeating.
Recently, Bessel van der Kolk said this about compulsive habits like overeating: they “exist because kids had to self soothe. They didn’t have parents to help them.”
Much overeating arises because we weren’t able to regulate our nervous systems with our loved ones when we were young. When our nervous systems aren’t able to regulate, we feel overwhelmed by our emotions and overwhelmed by stress. Our nervous systems have a difficult time titrating back and forth between feelings of rest and ease and arousal and activation.
As mammals, our nervous systems are designed to co-regulate – to regulate with another’s – from the cradle to the grave. As wee ones, we’re meant to be surrounded by a village of loving adults who help regulate our nervous systems, who are able to help us.
When caring adults aren’t available to help us, we learn to cope on our own.
Often this is because the adults in our lives are carrying their own traumas and stressors and aren’t able to offer us this crucial support. You may be able to look at your family and community and see how this pattern stretches back, and back and out, and out.
We all need compassion for these generational, cultural dynamics. In Western culture, we’re all swimming in a sea of individualism, capitalism, and a fixation on personal achievement. This includes our spiritual and healing cultures.
This creates a difficult environment for anyone to thrive as our need for financial stability and our focus on the individual trumps a communal, connected view of life, our relationships, and our emotional, relational needs.
If you’re like me, someone who’s used food throughout their lives to self soothe, you may feel ashamed about this habit, and ashamed that you haven’t been able to do better.
A friend of mine said this recently about our compulsions, and how we try to compensate for this lack of early support:
“We compensate trying to achieve something on our own that should’ve happened in our environment. These compensations become complex and complicated, and then we try to hide how hard we’re working. We feel dirty and ashamed because ‘I should be able to do this on my own.’”
Her words resonate with the sacred food stories I’ve heard from people of all walks of life, over and over.
And her words resonate with all the other complex ways we try to soothe our nervous systems: drugs and alcohol, shopping, media bingeing, overworking, perfectionism, trying to be the best, overresponsiblity, ‘people pleasing,’ caretaking for others, a fixation on status, money, and achievement, and more.
We need to tell ourselves a more generous story, a different understanding about overeating and food compulsions and why they’ve had such power in our lives.
(This is true about all our compulsions and addictions.)
We need to soften the story of ‘I should be able to do this on my own’ to compassion and grief for the ways we learned to rely on ourselves for way too much.
And we need to approach healing not from a place of, “I’m going to get my shit together and finally conquer this overeating” but, “How can I bring support, care and warmth to those places that feel so scared?”
How can I support my nervous system so it’s not seeking food to soothe itself?
And how can I open to help and support from many places, so that I don’t have to work and try so hard?