These past few weeks we’ve been exploring the ways we can use food to regulate our nervous system in the When Food is Your Mother class.
One of the topics that’s come up is how high sensitivity can lead to a ‘build up’ of stimuli that seeks relief in overeating – a topic that comes up regularly here. Many highly sensitive people – or HSPs – describe how they experience a regular ‘build up’ of stimuli – a growing, building, amping up of intensity, energy, agitation, and craving – that seeks an outlet in food.
Several people talked about how no matter what tools they used, or how much they tried to stop this oncoming binge, they could only delay, but not stop it. Eventually, the overeating would come!
I include myself in this ‘highly sensitive’ group. In my late teens and twenties, I had bulimia, and I can still remember how calmed and relaxed I felt after the frenzy of overeating and purging.
I felt terrible about it – guilt and shame that I couldn’t cope ‘better’ or stop the bingeing and purging – but the relief that bingeing brought to my nervous system was palpable! I felt this giant exhale, like an infant that had been rocked to sleep.
Understanding the impact of high sensitivity
It helps to understand what’s going on so we can give ourselves compassion for the ways we struggle with self regulation – and to give our nervous system outlets for this build up, so it can flow.
I remember a training I took with my mentor, developmental psychologist Dr. Neufeld, when he spoke about how highly sensitive children – and adults – start their day with their cup already more ‘filled up’ than others. Because they process so deeply, they’re already coping with an excess of internal and external stimuli – and their nervous systems reach their limit sooner.
When we feel stirred up, our nervous system looks for connection and safety – ways of coming down and out of this state of stress, work, and agitation and into a state of calm. If we don’t have places of relationship and connection where we can fully come down, food can step in.
Food can regulate our nervous system and emotions and bring our autonomic nervous system out of a stress state and into a state of calm. Food soothes the chaos, and we feel comforted and protected inside – like we have warm arms wrapped around us.
We also feel relief – for to be chronically stirred up and in a stress state feels terrible!
The shame of ‘not being self regulated’
It can feel really discouraging when we have a lot of awareness, know the tools, know how, and recognize the building intensity, but aren’t able to stop the oncoming binge.
And we can feel so much shame about not having more ‘self regulation’ or a calmer nervous system – especially if we meditate regularly, have done a lot of healing work, or are a therapist or healer ourselves.
There’s a way that ‘not being more regulated’ can feel like a personal failing – an implicit belief that lives in many Western cultures. (For another take on this, you might like this talk from my mentor, Bonnie Badenoch, on The Myth of Self Regulation.)
When our culture has an amped up nervous system
Our bodies and brains are designed to co-regulate, to be nestled within a circle of warm, caring relationships. (If you want to read more about this, A General Theory of Love is a good place to start.)
So many of us cope with a chronic lack of co-regulation. Many of us regularly feel and cope with chronic anxiety, stress and an amped up nervous system in our personal lives. This has only increased the past few years with a worldwide pandemic, inflation, polarized politics, natural disasters and the heartbreak of our planet.
When I hear stories of what the past few years have been like for people, I feel so much empathy for the ways we’ve been isolated and are carrying way too much on our shoulders – and often alone.
If you’re someone who’s highly sensitive, you probably feel all of this in your body – and at a heightened and more nuanced level than others. You add in your own personal challenges and worries – which you also feel at a more heightened and nuanced level – and you might feel cooked!
So many of our nervous systems feel stretched beyond what’s bearable, and are aching for rest and arms to hold us.
The ways our bodies move to take care for us
If we look at bingeing as a wise protector – as a way our body is trying to care for us – we can see how the bingeing points to an important need: the need for our nervous systems to come down, to feel safe, and to rest.
If you’re highly sensitive, are facing a lot of stress, or both, it’s very helpful to have regular ways to drain the build up of arousal in the body so that this energy doesn’t come out in a binge.
Sensitive people often have a lot of intensity, and this intensity means they have a great need for play, outlets, and ways of ‘coming down’ so it doesn’t build into a pressure cooker.
Yesterday afternoon, I noticed I was feeling agitated and got silly with my teenage son, playfully chasing him around the house. I felt so much calmer and less agitated after 5 minutes of play!
Any kind of physical play can help here! Any way of moving energy can reduce the limbic load and soothe your nervous system, bringing you down into a space of calm.
You can go for a bike ride, romp with your kids or nieces and nephews, wrestle (this is a great way to off load aggression and frustration!), play in the water, get silly with your pets, sing, dance, drum, play music, play in the dirt, go for a swim, go for a drive and sing along to the radio at the top of your lungs.
Laughing – laughing is really helpful here! (I laughed and laughed at this image today!) Sillyness and games. Swinging on a swing. Playing on a playground.
We are all such tender people – tender and fierce, strong and vulnerable. May we all be kinder to our nervous systems, and to ourselves. And may we all be more gentle with ourselves when the nervous system ‘explodes’ and we realize, in retrospect – Ah! I guess needed a lot more play!
A note on the image: I made this collage to express what it feels like when my nervous system is absorbed in what neuroscience educator Sarah Peyton calls ‘alarmed aloneness’ – a feeling of being scared, overwhelmed, overstimulated, and alone.