Disordered eating, trauma, addictions
Reprinted from "Women's" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (4), p. 38
In my role as a counsellor in both residential treatment and private practice, I’ve encountered numerous women struggling with issues relating to trauma, disordered eating, self-harm and substance misuse. According to researcher Nancy Poole, over the past five years an average of 35% of women attending the Aurora Centre residential and day treatment programs for drug and alcohol misuse also report experiencing symptoms of disordered eating.
In my own experience, as a woman in recovery from all these same issues, it’s difficult to find a professional trained to look at how these issues may be interrelated. And unfortunately, it is also difficult for many women to find treatment for disordered eating if they are still using mood altering substances, and equally difficult for those active in disordered eating behaviours to find treatment for substance misuse issues.
Most therapies I tried acknowledged part of my struggle (either thoughts or behaviour) but discounted other aspects of my experience. As a client, I often felt misunderstood or unheard, which amplified my sense of loneliness, shame and isolation. I was highly dissociative,1 which made it difficult to feel or to be empowered—I wasn’t even connected to me! I needed something that would honour and give voice to ‘all those parts’ of me, no matter how misunderstood or dysfunctional they were, so I would be able to honestly integrate and express my needs, feelings and experience. Then I could have been taught and encouraged to express myself in ways less destructive than disordered eating, self harm or addiction-focused behaviours.
Almost three decades ago, Dr. Eugene Gendlin of the University of Chicago, published his book Focusing, in which he talks about his experience and research as a psychotherapist. He noted that the clients who were making progress and experiencing shifts in self understanding were all doing something similar in their sessions, regardless of the type of therapy they were receiving. These observations led Dr. Gendlin to define a very personal, body-focused process, which he named Focusing.
Focusing is a way of bringing attention to one’s own body and listening in a compassionate way to what is there. It is a remarkably respectful technique that helps an individual develop an ‘Observer Self’ and attune to the body’s knowing or wisdom. For example, I had been taught through Focusing to notice or observe what I was doing. If I began to overeat or to starve myself, I was to notice myself doing it and then to become gently curious about what else might be going on for me at that time. Often I found I was feeling fearful or anxious about an upcoming event— which really had nothing to do with food, my shape or size. In the past, I would have been very critical of myself for bingeing or starving, and the cycle of self-abuse would have increased. Instead, with these new skills, I was able to make healthier choices for dealing with my feelings.
Focusing can be applied in a number of therapeutic situations: recovery from post-traumatic stress due to illness, accident, abuse or neglect; chronic pain due to illness or accident; stress management; depression, grief and/or complex life issues; and self-awareness and personal development.
The technique works wonderfully for someone who may be ambivalent— committed to change, and at the same time, fearful of making change—about their healing or recovery process. Focusing is a way to gently heal those parts that seem the most stuck and unresolved. It teaches and encourages the practice of mindfulness, which greatly reduces dissociation.1 By listening with care and compassion to those ‘places’ within ourselves that are hardest to resolve, those places can then naturally shift towards wellness.
In short, I find Focusing to be all encompassing. It allowed me to embrace all of my feelings, thoughts and experiences, and helped me achieve an overall sense of acceptance.
About the Author
Judy is certified as a Focusing Oriented Therapist and Trainer specializing in trauma. She is a counsellor at the Aurora Centre and also works in private practice. Judy can be reached at (604) 809-1717 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Dissociation is a mental process, which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. During the period of time when a person is dissociating, certain information is not associated with other information as it normally would be.
Gendlin, E. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.