Trauma Troubles: Exploring How Systemic Exclusion Impacts Eating Disorder RecoveryOct 07, 2022
This blog is part of a special 12-month series titled, “Inclusive Eating Disorder Recovery: How Yoga Therapy Can Help” written for Yoga for Eating Disorders. Through my blogs and related social media posts, I will explore how we can use the ethics of Yoga, personal practice, movement, breath, focused attention, and meditation to create recovery spaces that are inclusive and reflective of diverse lived experience. Join in the conversation on Instagram by following along @yogaforeatingdisorders and @holisticyogatherapist.
Trauma (noun): trȯ-mə: Trauma is a pervasive problem. It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.
—Trauma Informed Care Implementation Resource Centre
A 2017 study noted that trauma exposure and other severe adverse experiences (e.g., emotional abuse) in both childhood and adulthood are associated with eating disorders. This is not news, since in 2007 a literature review found that the spectrum of trauma associated with eating disorders extends to a variety of forms and multiple episodes of abuse or neglect. It concluded that the trauma and its symptoms must be addressed in order to facilitate full recovery from the associated eating disorder.
How does our understanding of trauma shape how we think about eating disorder recovery and how we reproduce social inequality and systemic exclusion when it comes to recovery? In this blog post, we’ll explore how the experiences of systemic exclusion and associated trauma of those affected by eating disorders impact how people seek help for eating disorders and how yoga therapy can support inclusive recovery.
Trauma and Eating Disorders - What We Know
A 2018 study found that gender-based violence and trauma impacted the central nervous, endocrine, and immune systems of systemically excluded survivors at a higher rate, leaving them at risk for multiple long term health problems, including eating disorders. This is one example of trauma that can have effects that last over generations due to epigenetics - the process that changes how genes are expressed by altering chemical tags in response to stressors in our environment without changing the DNA. While this makes up adaptable, it also means that traumatic events can impact generations.
This could look like someone inheriting susceptibilities toward eating disorder development that are rooted in their great-grandparents surviving famine or loss of cultural foods, their mother experiencing perinatal stress due to food insecurity, or childhood stress due to poverty. This ongoing exposure to food related trauma can impact compulsivity or anxiety as well as metabolic adaptations that increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
The normalisation of trauma in racialized marginalised populations is heightened when combined with structural racism - the system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. This can have serious negative health impacts, including a lack of trust, or an unwillingness to seek support with eating disorder recovery.
How Yoga Therapy Can Help
How can yoga therapy support a more inclusive eating disorder recovery for people who live with an eating disorder and who may have experienced trauma due to systemic exclusion?
We have already explored how the yamas (yuh-muhs) can generally be helpful. In this post we are going to learn more about how we can apply the yama of asteya (Uh-s-t-ai-y-uh) which is generally translated as non-stealing. But what does non-stealing mean in this context?
Steya or stealing doesn’t always look obviously like theft. Instead, consider actions that stem from a sense of lack, insecurity, wanting, feeling “not enough” - things that you might do because it feels like something is missing, or something needs to be filled. To practice asteya requires us to look at our relationships - which is the work of yoga which means to yoke or connect, or to be in relationship with the whole so we can cultivate this feeling of being enough.
It may include exploring our experience of dvesa (d-way-sha) or aversion to suffering where we steal the opportunity to experience something fully because we are avoiding the intense emotion that comes with it. This could also look like constantly chasing pleasurable experiences so we remain focused only on what we desire instead being able to find a place of contentment where we can observe what is and explore an experience in its completeness. Asteya includes giving ourselves the opportunity to fully experience life in that very moment - recognizing the impacts of trauma, as well as our adaptability and resilience, and our capacity to seek help and care.
The practice of yoga, particularly when it is a customised practice co-designed by your yoga therapist will help you reconnect with your capacity for generosity towards yourself and cultivate your capacity for deeper relationships grounded in appreciation and presence with yourself and those in your community. It might also help you be present with the experiences of others, to be open to hearing the more difficult aspects and to recognizing how you can influence change on oppressive systems and structures when the time is right so you can restore your relationship with food and community.
This is done with the eventual focus of achieving your goals. Since the practice of asteya includes noticing, appreciation, and habit change, your yoga therapist will help you (re)build this capacity by suggesting an accessible daily practice that includes self-reflection, observation and study. Your task is to tap into your capacity for generosity and appreciation to motivate yourself to complete it.
This approach is critical because as we deepen our capacity for non-stealing, we are better able to be generous and appreciative with others and to either support or facilitate research, education and care that understands the complexity of the experience and enables inclusive recovery for our communities.
Call to Action
As a researcher, you might use the practice of asteya to explore how you can be in better relationship with your participants when examining the impact that trauma from oppression has as a contributing/exacerbating factor to eating disorders. You may also be more open to including intergenerational trauma as a factor, and to not stealing space or time from your participants so they can share the complexity of their lived experience. Another way to practice asteya is to generously include cultural solutions that support community health in your work. You could also choose to be generous in sharing inclusive practices with your colleagues - including ways to include more culturally appreciative and inclusive approaches to food, or by specifically adding an analysis of cultural foodways to your work. The practice of astyea when it comes to how you see the world might also help you decolonize your approach when working with systematically excluded colleagues or change how you work with communities to a more generous approach.
If you are a care provider, you might use an asteya practice to explore how you make space for careseekers to be involved in designing care plans and structures that support individuals who experience trauma from multiple forms of oppression. You might also look for ways to engage care seekers so they do not feel like they have to choose what to address and include community care supports to address issues holistically. You may also explore how the language you use around food and food choices contributes to the inclusion, or exclusion of the people you support. You might also ask questions or policy and decision makers and become clearer about what inclusion means in your organisation, and how you can remove barriers that exist as you support recovery.
If you are seeking care for yourself, or someone else, your practice of asteya might include finding ways to address the breadth and depth of your experience, including intergenerational or other trauma from systemic oppression that contributes to eating disorders.
You might work with your yoga therapist, or other care providers to explore ways to address traumatic experiences into your healing journey. Or you might name and appreciate the barriers you experience in learning more about how to navigate oppressive systems as they relate to eating disorder recovery to your care team and community so they can help work to address the systems that maintain and enforce those barriers.
If it feels comfortable you might also use the practice to inform research and to help change systems at a more fundamental level. You might be truthful in your choice to share which forms of care or support to address eating disorders within the context of multiple barriers, or ongoing exclusion were most helpful so that other community members, care providers and system builders are aware and can integrate that information into their decision making.
If you are already using the practice of asteya to deepen your self awareness and reconnect with aspects of your identity and cultural practices to support your recovery, we would love to learn more about what you are up to.
Please share how it is going so far, what has worked well, and what you might set aside. Tell us in the comments, or message us on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/holisticyogatherapist and https://www.instagram.com/yogaforeatingdisorders
Resources to Support Your Exploration
ED, Trauma and psychosocial resources
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