I gripped the neck of the green Coca-Cola bottle hidden beneath the folds of my ragged skirt. Not much protection, but all I had. The five of us Dulin Kids sat like statues on the worn brown sofa and stared at the butcher knife Dad held at Mom’s throat…
Emotional and physical trauma, such as depicted in the above scene from my childhood, is one of many factors that can contribute to the development of binge eating disorder (BED). Childhood trauma, especially when it occurs before the age of nine or ten, is an especially strong force that often drives us toward binge eating. How this plays out is fascinating.
Learning to Self-soothe in a Safe Home
Self-soothing is one of the earliest and most important coping skills we learn as children.
In a safe home, young children learn to soothe themselves by being comforted and soothed by their parents. For example, if a small child is frightened by the “boogie man” in her room at bedtime, she runs screaming to her father (or mother) who immediately takes her in his arms. Kissing her forehead, he speaks to her in a calm soothing voice and sings a favorite lullaby. Returning with her to the bedroom, the child is shown that what frightened her was only a shadow on the wall. This scenario may happen more than once, but the child eventually convinces herself it is indeed only a shadow. She learns to soothe herself, and learns that her home is a safe place in which to grow up.
When the Shadows on the Wall are Real
Compare this nurtured child to the child who grows up in a dangerous and unhappy home such as mine. What does this child see and experience? Even as an infant, anger, sadness, and fear are telegraphed to the child through her parents’ eyes, touch, voice, and even smell. Mother and father yell, and siblings cry. As she grows up, this young child may be physically, even sexually, abused. In her home, the shadows on the wall are real.
As this young girl grows, she may take on any number of destructive coping skills. She may “act out” or become depressed and withdrawn. As she enters adolescence, she may become promiscuous in order to get the attention and comfort she needs. She may turn to alcohol or drugs or gambling or shoplifting. Or binge eating.
Children, like myself, who grow up in unsafe homes become keenly vigilant to the dangers around them. We scan our world—through sights, sounds, and smells—for signs of danger and take on hypervigilance as a way of life.
In my youth, I wasn’t conscious of how vigilant I stayed, but even as a young child, I knew the difference in the sound of Dad’s pick-up truck on the gravel driveway when he was drinking and when he wasn’t. Straightened sample books in my parents’ upholstery shop made my heart quicken; they meant Dad was drinking and Mom had kept busy in the front room, straightening fabric samples, in order to stay out of his way. This pattern of hypervigilance became deeply engrained.
How Hypervigilance Effects Our Brains
There is a primitive part of our brain, called the amygdala, which is responsible for our physiological reactions to danger. As the first in line for data coming from our various senses, it is a sort of triage station where information is quickly assessed. If the information requires normal thought, the amygdala sends it on to the more advanced thinking part of the brain, where deliberate and measured decisions are made. But if the amygdala senses an emergency that demands immediate action, it doesn’t take the time to send a transmission to the thinking brain. It simply reacts. This is the well-known fight-or-flight response.
Most of us have faced an emergency situation where we just reacted without thinking. We saw a semi-truck and slammed on the brakes or swerved before we even processed the fact that we saw the truck in the first place. At that moment, we were functioning in our amygdala where thought isn’t possible.
The amygdala is very sensitive to continued use. The more our brains route information through it, the more easily triggered these neural pathways become and the more cues we interpret as signals of danger. The younger we are, the more quickly the pathways form, and the stronger and deeper the grooves. Children, like me, who must remain constantly vigilant in their homes develop virtual ruts and become programmed to function in crisis mode, to act from the amygdala. Our fight-or-flight response becomes hair-trigger. It readies us for action, leaving us in a state of anxiety much of the time. This constant anxiety persists long after the unsafe childhood is a thing of the past.
What Does This Have to Do with Bingeing?
When anxiety hits, we are desperate to find immediate relief, to escape the distress we feel. The fight-or-flight response is in high gear and off we go. Since we didn’t learn to self-soothe as young children, we can’t hush even little moments of stress from within, so our brain often drives us to an easily accessible escape: food. In a binge, we are “fleeing” from reality with food as our transportation. Eating is one of the earliest and most consistent comforts we experience, and one that stays with us forever. It is not that the neglected or abused person has no means of comfort other than food, or that every abused child will turn to food for comfort. Most of us will find at least some comfort in other areas of our life, but for children growing up in an unsafe environment the range of choices is far more limited and the key ability to self-soothe is greatly dampened.
If we could trace the source of those cravings that hit us in a flash, we would probably find some cue in the environment to which our amygdala reacted. Food (especially sweet, fatty food) works to isolate us from the intense distress we feel in that moment. It calms us and we feel better, but the residue of shame only leads to more stress and more eating. And on and on, until we become a chronic binger with ever-widening psychological and physical issues.
I don’t know when I first began to binge, but I do have an early memory of hiding under the kitchen table with Mom’s pink-and-white-flowered sugar bowl and a loaf of Merita bread. I was about four. Dad was yelling and hitting my mom and she was crying. I poured sugar on the soft white bread, folded it, and pinched the edges to seal in the sugar, and secretly ate sugar sandwiches one after the other. In our family, where guns and knives were used to threaten, and broken bones were not unusual, my amygdala got a work-out!
I grew up and my life changed to a safe one. I knew that I used food to get through major stresses but, until I was diagnosed with binge eating disorder and began my journey to healing, I didn’t realized that I used food, sometimes on an hourly basis, just to get through the smallest of upsets. Food became my primary means of comfort, which severely limited my emotional growth and well-being, and threatened my physical health.
Through all the years that I suffered the shame and guilt of binge eating, I had no way of knowing that trauma in my childhood had had such an impact. I didn’t know that it had caused not only psychological problems, but actual physical changes in my body that predisposed me to cravings and bingeing. Armed with this new information, I could finally begin to see a way out. The journey has not been an easy one, but understanding some of the mechanisms that drove me to my destructive behavior set me on a path to recovery.
*Note: This article draws from the chapter “Shadows on the Wall: The Unsafe Child” found in Hilda Dulin Lee’s 2016 book, In the Labyrinth of Binge Eating.
More about Hilda Dulin Lee
Dr. Hilda Dulin Lee, dentist and writer, received her BA degree in literature, then did a year of post-graduate work in the sciences before attending dental school where she earned her DMD degree. In 1998, after practicing dentistry for many years, she was diagnosed with BED and made a decision that would alter the course of her life. She sold her dental practice and returned to graduate school where she studied the research on BED and engaged in creative writing workshops. Her first book, In the Labyrinth of Binge Eating, was released in April 2016. The book not only chronicles her personal struggle with BED, but also offers hope and practical guidance to others who suffer as she did.