By: Jessica Johns-Green, MA, LPC
What does the family you grew up in have to do with eating disorders later in life? Clients often recognize the difficulties in their families, but the eating disorder starts later on. Binge eating, bulimia and anorexia can be seen as another problem on top of the family issues you’ve had to cope with, rather than an understandable outcome of the family dynamics. There may be more predictable links than you realize.
Understanding Toxic Families and Eating Disorders
Understanding the specific dynamics in your family might be an important aspect of your personal growth or therapy work. But for now, when I refer to difficult or toxic family dynamics, it may be one, some or many of the following:
- agressive or violent parents
- when one or more parent(s) are codependent either with an aggressive/violent or substance abusing partner
- parents who are enmeshed or codependent with children
- parents that abused drugs/alcohol
- super high, unreasonable expectations of children
- parents who had unspoken family drama, unhappy relationships or a great deal of conflict
- emotional abuse from parents or not welcoming vulnerability in children
- narcissistic parents, meaning it was all about them
For more information on typical toxic family styles 7 Toxic Family Styles, Patrick Teahan
In reading the above list, it probably seems understandable that people who grew up in situations like those listed would have some issues to heal. But how do eating disorders fit in?
The Link Between Toxic Families and Eating Disorders
What all the family issues on the list have in common are that they are overwhelming. There is an emotional overwhelming-ness to them, but it is important to also understand that the nervous system – our brain and it’s network of connections throughout the body – also become overwhelmed.
People, and children in particular, need a sense of connection and safety. When we don’t get that, our nervous system will go into alert – kind of like a fire alarm going off to warn of danger. This in itself is not a problem, because once the overwhelming thing is over the alarm switches off and we get on with life feeling normal again. But, in toxic families where the overwhelming situations are the norm, or where the people that should make us feel safe -our parents – are the ones who are making the alarm go off, we have to find another way to switch off, return to calm and normality.
The nervous system operates best within a zone of tolerance, cycling between action and rest. Alertness and calm. Trauma, toxic family dynamics send us far above the normal alert state and when the alarm doesn’t switch off our bodies will look for ways to detach, numb. We may even fight back, avoid or escape – mentally or physically.
How Food Behaviors Help Regulate and Can Lead To Eating Disorders
Food is an accessible and easy way to accomplish all the survival strategies that cope with the dysfunction and the internal alarm system. When we’ve been too much in action/alert mode it doesn’t feel good, we’ll be drawn towards calming. Overeating, binging can encourage the nervous system to numb, to quiet the alarm. If we’ve been too numb, it also doesn’t feel good and we’ll seek to balance out. Restricting and purging (vomiting, laxative use, over-exercise) bring us up out of the numb state.
Food behavior probably doesn’t happen directly after a traumatic event with your family, although it might. Typically it doesn’t come about until we are old enough to make choices about our food, and it can worsen in adulthood during times of stress or when we notice similar patterns, even if we haven’t yet been able to identify those patterns yet. When food or restricting food works to lessen the overwhelming experience in life and in the nervous system, we are likely to return to it, especially if we are confused about why we feel this way and don’t have other, healthier ways to cope.
Begin Eating Disorder Therapy in Katy, TX
Struggling with your relationship with food and ready to find a way forward? Ready to heal and gain power over these kinds of issues? The therapists at The Center at Cinco Ranch can help! To begin counseling in Katy, TX follow these three steps:
- Contact our office to set up an appointment or to get more information on toxic families and eating disorders.
- Meet with one of our skilled therapists
- Find new ways to break free from the cycle!
Other Therapy Services We Offer
Here at The Counseling Center at Cinco Ranch we offer counseling services for people of all ages in areas including: counseling for kids, counseling for young adults, teen counseling, couples counseling, eating disorder treatment, men’s issues, women’s issues, anxiety treatment, depression therapy, family therapy, and group counseling. Our therapists strive to regularly post blogs. We provide helpful information on a variety of mental health topics. To learn more about our therapists and our counseling services, please reach out to the Counseling Center today!