Recovery from high functioning PTSD and an Eating Disorder

My whole life, I have been busy, working, volunteering, and generally in a state of doing. I was always the person people came to when they wanted something done. What neither of us knew was why. Why did I keep myself so busy? I finally have the answer. The TLDR: I needed was to recover from PTSD and an Eating Disorder.

I spent my life living in a perpetual state of exhaustion. It didn’t matter how much sleep I got; I would wake up with low energy and feel like I didn’t sleep. So, I began working with my doctor, a psychologist, and my Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor. In therapy, I worked on my PTSD recovery. We used EMDR therapy (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy developed by Francine Shapiro) to process the unprocessed memories of my PTSD, including the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and physical sensations that they include. 

The longer it lasted, the more I was filled with self-judgment and self-shame; this was even worse than the fatigue. It was frustrating, like a rollercoaster ride that I can’t get off. As the months passed, I seemed to be falling further and further below the surface, not knowing what else to do while also doing everything I could.

I felt like I was in a fog, days passing one after the other. And then, in a magical moment of awareness, I began to figure it out.

I was coping

Early in my therapy, I remember my psychologist saying that I had become a master at self-regulation, which is how my PTSD went undiagnosed for 40 years. I didn’t understand what he meant back then; it took months after therapy was complete to start to see it. At my worst, I was working 70-80 hours a week, volunteering over 1200 hours a year, over and above being a married mom of two. 

Then, five years ago, I left this lifestyle; I started to feel better immediately. I thought I had completed this part of my life, healed, and resolved my pattern. And now, I can see I was so wrong. I had found new ways to fill up my time, to keep me busy, and found a way to justify it as “good busy.” 

Eureka! I have kept my life busy because I never have the time to deal with the pain, thoughts, emotions, and trauma. 

The uncomfortable space of nothing

In Yoga, we look to Ayurveda to guide our practice of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. This ancient medical practice emphasizes good health, prevention, and treatment of illness through lifestyle. In Ayurveda, we look to the five elements of nature to understand ourselves.

We look to find balance with Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. Earth, as an example, is often described as being grounded. However, we can be too grounded, it feels like being stuck, lethargic, unable to change, or we can feel safe and free to move through our life without being caught in our fears. We can feel the presence of balance with the water element when energy is effortlessly flowing. We can let go of what no longer serves us. Out of balance, we feel out of control, moving too quickly, even spinning; we feel caught in the undertow of a strong wave.

And then there is ether, often described as consciousness and space. Ether is different. Unlike the other elements, qualities of ether are based more upon the absence of its opposing quality than on the actual quality itself. For instance, ether is cold because it lacks warmth created by fire. Ether is light because it lacks the heaviness created by earth and water. Immobile because it lacks the propulsive nature of air. Subtle because it lacks the profound presence of the more obvious elements.

Ether is different from other elements; instead of having qualities, it is the space that other elements exist within. It can be very uncomfortable, even scary, to experience ether. It is why we turn on music or the tv when we are alone. 

When I saw the avoidance, I knew it was either! I had filled my life so I wouldn’t be alone and in pain. 

Compassionate Awareness

In Buddhism, there is a lesson about the magical pause. This is the moment when we become aware when we see ourselves, our experiences, and our patterns clearly.

The magical pause of awareness can happen anywhere within an episode of dysregulation. It can be early when we can see the thoughts that lead to our coping, we can be in the middle of the episode, or it can be after it has been completed.

The magical pause is a gift. It allows us the moment where we step back and see that we are dysregulated and engaging in coping.

When the awareness comes, it can be so easy to continue, you may hear your thoughts say “well I’ve already started so I might as well continue”. For me, my thoughts are filled with shame. When I don’t continue, it is also easy, to take any action, but these actions often look like judging, fixing or more self-harming behaviours.  

There is another option… You see, we all have maladaptive coping strategies, and the option is to stop the cycle of self-loathing, self-judgement and self-harm. 

To do this we bring compassionate awareness and self-care to our needs. 

Cultivating awareness of my patterns in the magical pause

I have three prevalent maladaptive coping behaviours, and all are consistent with the uncomfortableness of either. Each of these began early in my life as coping mechanisms to handle the pain of trauma. While initially these actually supported me. Today, the long-experienced results have now become a source of my suffering. They are a being busy problem solver, binge eating disorders, and sensory overloading.

Early Years

As a young child, I was faced with a moment of fear, for me it felt like my world was crashing in around me, and I was alone. I didn’t want to be afraid of what was happening or be alone, so I took on being busy problem-solving. This was a way to try to fix what I was afraid of. I would do the chores my sister hadn’t so my parents wouldn’t fight. I learned to do laundry and cook when they fought about it not being done. As a small child, I was praised for this, I was “helpful” and a “good girl”. My parents were busy with work, and the health of my sister, so this praise was highly addictive. 

But it didn’t end in my childhood home. It spread to my work, where the praise was given for taking on extra projects and working longer hours. As a parent, trying so hard to protect my kids from any sort of suffering was smothering and led to over-cautious behaviours. In my community, it meant being a go-to volunteer, doing what others said they would do and didn’t, and being very uncomfortable when someone asked for help and there were crickets in the room.

Adolescence

Then, in my adolescence, several experiences left me feeling deeply isolated once again. Family members lumped me in with the destructive behaviours of my sibling, leaving me feeling like I could never be good enough. Didn’t they see all I did to try to help? Couldn’t they see how scared I was, that I needed help too? Then the unthinkable happened, my grandfather vanished. It was here that being busy problem solving began to fail me. Today, I am able to see this feeling of being empty, isolated, and terrified as the beginning of my binge eating disorder. I was sticking to the busy problem-solving ways, and in response to my mother’s body image and my father’s “advice” about being a woman a man would want, I compensated with over-exercising so no one would notice.

More recently

The last has developed in the last five years. When I saw the overworking busy body I had become, I quit my job and started ending the many ways I was filling my calendar. My physical health was getting better every single day, I had more energy and comfortable movement in my body. What I couldn’t see was I found new “good” ways to keep busy. I lean into a new career, taking several training programs all at once. Pushing myself hard, and it worked. I built a successful business quickly, my student and clients success becoming the new praise I have always needed. I even took on a new kind of volunteering with a self-development organization. Before I knew it I had refilled my life.

And then, the pandemic of 2020. All of a sudden a lot of the new ways I had found to stay busy ended abruptly. What I didn’t know, until my therapy, was that all that being busy was keeping my stress and pain managed.  Remember when I said I didn’t understand what my therapist mean by how good I was at self-regulation? This was the moment when I got it, the whole time I was being busy, I had actually been coping. 

When that was taken away I needed some new way to cope, I found a new way to keep busy. This time I dove into technology, it was easy to overload my senses. Some days diving into a good series, like Grey’s Anatomy. But then, I realized I had binge-watched 16 seasons in about a month. If that wasn’t enough to overload my senses, I would be on my phone playing solitaire while watching a show. Even when my mind and eyes would get tired, I would continue. Impacting my sleep, which only led to the cycle continuing. 

Breaking the cycle

How do you break the cycle of behaviours that allowed you to be someone with PTSD who is high functioning? Especially when these ways of coping have worked for 40 years?

Outside of therapy, I turned to Yoga, the practice towards the liberation of suffering at its core. The Bhagavad Gita says, Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self. So, in Yoga embody our experience, or as Brené Brown would say, we “Embrace the suck.”

I have practiced Yoga since I was 16; it is a gift that my teacher shared with me in one of my most profound moments of suffering. Since then, I have often tried to understand this, and it always felt like something was in my way. A massive wall I had built with my coping mechanisms to protect me from experiencing the trauma again.

Then as I did EMDR therapy and processed my memories and trauma, it was like the power of Viserion breaking down my wall. (Of course, there is a geeky moment to my story) 

Now, that wall built of my trauma and coping mechanisms is a pile of rubble. I am navigating who I am without the protection it provides. Yet, while uncomfortable, I get to discover the life I created for myself. I get to change the parts I used to hide from the unprocessed pain. There are good days that I feel lighter, free of the heavy burden of trauma. And there are days when the journey through my experience is exhausting and demanding. 

So how am I disrupting my maladaptive coping? How am I supporting my experiences and episodes? And most importantly, how am I doing both without the problem-solving busy body, self-harming behaviours, and the over-exercising and binge eating? 

Embodied self-compassionate self-regulation

In the forward of “Embodiment and the Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Body as a Resource in Recovery” by Catherine Cook-Cottone, Tracy L Tylka Ph.D. FAED says, “Embodiment is being-with, and working with all of the sensations, emotions, and experience life offers. Experiencing the body, heart, mind, soul, and relationships as intertwined and living”, “to be embodied necessitates regular and mindful self-care, as embodiment can be regularly disrupted by external and internal factors.” 

In an interview, Catherine Cook-Cottone spoke to the benefits of embodied self-regulation. (the following is from my notes and not a perfect quote). She described embodied self-regulation as not something we do to fix ourselves. Instead, the action is noticing your experience, experiencing what you are experiencing, and recognizing the choices we make within states of dysregulation. She said this practice helps us in “understanding when the feeling part of our brain is so engaged that the thinking part of our brain can’t help” that we can “take steps to calm the emotional feeling brain so our thinking brain can really help.” 

So why embodiment at this moment. Well, as Catherine says in the quote above, in the episode of dysregulation, thoughts and emotions can and do take over. This is why using the brain for logical thinking isn’t accessible. So in turning to the body’s sensations, we change the focus of the brain to one of inquiry and listening.

The self-compassionate part of embodied self-regulation I have added myself. It is implied that embodied self-regulation is listening to the body’s sensations, experiencing them, and taking actions consistent with the needs we discover in those sensations. For me, this reminder of saying self-compassionate is a critical way to keep my problem-solving busy body from peaking in with judgment and fixing. 

Embodied Self-Compassionate Self-Regulation

So how does one practice embodied self-compassionate self-regulation?

Step one: Stop and listen in. At Eat Breathe Thrive, we use a meditation called the Interoceptive Check-In. I recorded this for my students, becoming an essential part of my toolkit. This meditation guides us through listening to the sensations in our belly and naming them, bringing curiosity to what need that sensation is pointing to, noticing without engagement any reaction to the sensation or need, and taking action to support the needs communicated. Repeat as needed.

Step two: Understand the difference between sleep and rest. Please find out more about the seven types of rest each of us needs.

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