If you’ve ever been depressed, anxious or angry you know how emotions can impact your appetite. Any one of those experiences can make you eat more or less depending on the day and the intensity of what you’re feeling. And then what happens? If you skip some meals or binge on junk food, do you feel better or worse?
That’s what I thought. Eating or not eating has consequences that range from mental to emotional to physical, which makes nutrition very important in PTSD. Especially if you’re on a quest to reclaim some balance and self-regulatory control, you need to be giving your body — and your number one resource: your brain — what it needs to optimally function.
Your Best Brain Fuel: Glucose
I myself went the less eating route – for over twenty years. In a bid for control over a body in which I felt trapped and terrified I restricted food (I was anorexic) just to feel that I, and not my body or the past or some future trauma was in control. Restricting food became a game I played with myself: How long could I not eat and still be able to sustain activity and survive? Often, I’d wait until I was about to pass out before I’d eat some small thing. By doing this I felt, ironically, safer. The more stress and trauma I created for myself the more secure I felt knowing I could handle it. This process became a way I tested myself to make sure I was strong enough to survive whatever trauma came next.
Of course, giving in to those feelings really put my body, the past and some unnamed future trauma in control. Eating as little 500 calories a day you can imagine how fuzzy my head was, how poor my emotional control and how damaged my body eventually became. By the time I was thirty-five I was diagnosed with advanced osteoporosis, partially caused by my severe lack of nutrition.
The biggest problem with PTSD and nutrition habits, however, has less to do with bones and a lot to do with your brain and what it needs to optimally function. Your brain runs on the simple sugar, glucose, which can be found in grains, fruits and vegetables, refined sugar and dairy products. In order for you to have the energy you need to be able to manage emotions, create a sense of calm and make good decisions your brain needs enough glucose to run all of its systems at the same time.
When you don’t give your brain the fuel it needs, guess what it does? It shuts down systems that use large amounts of energy. For example, your willpower system, which can be enormously critical in PTSD management as it helps you make good decisions that influence what you think, feel and do. Without access to willpower, it can be very tough to achieve your recovery or coping goals.
When your brain conserves energy by shutting off high-energy consumption systems that leaves in charge your low-energy, lower brain processing systems. Know what those are? Your older brain structures that run on threat detection and emotion. Of course, in PTSD those systems are already hypersensitive, which means they work overtime, making your higher brain functions (those that include willpower) incredibly important to create balance in your internal experience.
Without glucose your brain can’t access all of the higher systems it needs, so the lower brain structures run the show, creating chaos as they overreact and you feel the spiral out of control. You can, however, help your brain process more effectively and efficiently. All you have to do is eat well, in a balanced and scheduled program. For an overview of how you can add more good glucose to your diet check out this list of options. For more healthy eating tips, click here.
Last week, one of the Heal My PTSD support group members heaved a big sigh and asked, “Is it normal to fluctuate between seeing progress and going back to square one? Is that part of PTSD recovery?”
It was a great question. In his PTSD recovery, the member had seen himself make steady forward progress in many areas, including a new job search, dating and making new friends in the community. Then, an unfortunately timed altercation with a neighbor triggered feelings of panic that led our group member to revert to isolation mode.
When you’re healing, you want to find yourself on an upward trajectory, but does recovery from PTSD really happen that way?
PTSD Recovery: ‘Feeling’ vs. ‘Being’ At Square One
As you already know, PTSD recovery doesn’t go in a straight line. What worked for others may not work for you, and what works for you may not work all the time. The goal in recovery, actually, isn’t to go full steam ahead every day; it’s to make solid progress in the right direction over a period of time. There are a few reasons this works better:
Your brain needs time to consolidate changes – Your brain learns and then needs to organize, integrate, uptake and implement the long-lasting changes you wish to see. If you move forward too quickly without allowing your brain to do this you can put yourself into mental overload. Expect your brain to have growth spurts followed by slower periods that feel as if you are not making progress. During those times your brain may be working more quietly than you realize.
Your emotions need time to regulate – Your emotions fluctuate due to both internal and external stimuli. In forward motion times you may be thinking more positively and so giving your emotional regulation a boost in its balance. Conversely, when your perspective becomes more negative you can slow down or even overload your emotional motherboard. Expect yourself to have ups and downs; the fluctuation is actually good training for your brain to learn how to find a steady balance.
When you hit a (brick) wall in your PTSD recovery, the truth is, you are always farther along than square one. Today, you know more and have thought more than you did yesterday; that puts you even farther from square one!
What our support group member was really talking about was the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘being’. He felt like he was back at square one because the emotions and behaviors he was experiencing reminded him of back at that time. That’s normal, and completely reasonable. You may remember the giddiness of a childhood birthday – when you do, does that mean you’re back at that day? No! It means you remember the feeling of that day.
You can only ‘be’ now. Today is way past square one and so you are way past square one. When you feel like you are back there try this:
Notice what is making you feel like you’ve gone backward. (Usually these are negative thoughts, actions or emotions reminiscent of an earlier time.)
What would it take to replace your thoughts, actions or emotions with more positive ones?
Choose an action and take it.
What we’re really talking about here is being able to self-regulate and bring yourself back into the present moment through an empowered response. You have many choices for how to do this. Which one will you choose?