Welcome to the fourth article in The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. In my teens and late 20s, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it left me feeling suicidal and at one point, partially housebound. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I have been largely symptom-free of OCD since 2012, with one relapse. And I offer support to people who have OCD who want to get their lives back.
The previous three articles in The OCD series focused on nutritional tools that support your mental health. Yet nutrition is not the only tool for recovering from OCD, though it is an important one. This article will discuss the role of childhood trauma in OCD.
Before we go further, I'd like to say – the information in this article won't be relevant for all of you. Not everyone affected by OCD will have experienced childhood trauma. If this article doesn't strike a chord for you, I invite you to look at the other articles in The OCD Series.
First of all, I’m a Nutritionist – not a Psychologist or Counselor. Yet while working on my recovery from OCD using a wide variety of tools, I've come to understand how events in my childhood and teens contributed to the development of OCD. Additionally, last year I read a psychotherapist’s theory on how OCD may develop that resonated with me. I will share this theory here.
OCD as a flight response to trauma – 'running away' from your feelings via excessive thinking and doing, while shutting off your feelings
Childhood trauma can include both abuse and neglect – in other words, both things that happened (such as physical, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse, or combinations of) and things that did not happen (such as love, kindness, care, listening, attunement, emotional validation, valuing, concern). In other words, you don't have to have been beaten or molested to have experienced abuse and trauma that has affected your emotional health and development.
Psychotherapist Pete Walker states that childhood trauma, when severe enough, commonly leads to the development of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Walker states that C-PTSD is a severe condition and less well known than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Walker, C-PTSD is “delineated from PTSD by five common and troublesome features”: emotional flashbacks, a vicious inner critic, social anxiety, toxic shame and self abandonment.
In his excellent, practical guide for those recovering from C-PTSD, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Walker explains that individuals typically develop one of four ‘survival strategies’ to “prevent, escape from or ameliorate further traumatization”.
The four ‘survival strategies’ are:
Walker describes the trauma survivor who has adapted the flight strategy as:
“Driven by the unconscious belief that perfection will make them safe and lovable. They rush to achieve. They rush as much in thought (obsession) as they do in action (compulsion).
As children, flight types variably respond on a continuum from …. the driven A student [to] the ADHD dropout. Flight types relentlessly flee the inner pain of their abandonment with the symbolic flight of busyness”.
Walker goes on to say that when flight types are not doing and hurrying, they are busy worrying and planning about doing, to stay one step ahead of their inner pain. He also says flight types may be more drawn to risky activities, with their associated adrenalin highs, and to workaholism. Walker states “Severely traumatized flight types may devolve into OCD”.
It wasn’t until my early 30s that I really began to grasp how emotionally unhealthy aspects of my family life had been. And I began to understand how aspects of my past have impacted and continue to impact my emotional and mental health. In 2017, I learned I have C-PTSD. I continue to work on my healing and I was fortunate to find a warm and empathic psychotherapist who is skilled in working with childhood trauma. I also read Pete Walker’s book on C-PTSD and I continue to refer to it often. It has been so helpful for me.
If you’re suffering with OCD and the theory discussed in this article resonates with you, I recommend Pete Walker’s book (details below) as an excellent starting point for childhood trauma recovery and mental health support.
And I recommend finding a psychotherapist or psychologist you feel safe with. Importantly, find a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma and who has personal experience of family/childhood trauma and not just textbook understanding. In my opinion, it’s difficult for a therapist who had a mostly good, loving childhood to understand the impacts of a traumatizing childhood. While no therapist is obliged to share any details of their personal life with a client, I believe it is acceptable (and important for your wellbeing) to ask before commencing therapy or early in therapy if your therapist has personal experience of childhood trauma. In my experience, a therapist who has this kind of life experience will touch on it fairly early in therapy, in a spirit of empathy – and as a way of signaling hope for better days ahead.
Trust your gut when it comes to therapy and whether you have found the right therapist for you. While therapy is not easy and you may not always agree with your therapist, you should always feel supported and believed by your therapist, and feel you are making progress. If you ever sense your therapist does not believe the family traumas you’ve experienced (or they tell you so) or that your therapist does not grasp how deeply your childhood and teenage family experiences have wounded you, I would encourage you to find a new therapist. You want to invest your precious time, money and effort in therapy that is going to support your healing, not add to your trauma.
Finally, from the nutritional perspective, traumatic experiences have significant metabolic effects that impact our physical health too. Abusive families don’t tend to stop being abusive as the child grows into a teen, then adult, and those of us who have experienced family trauma have often been living in the stress response/fight-or-flight response for decades. The metaphorical foot has been on the gas pedal for too long, depleting our stores of crucial vitamins and minerals that get used in the stress response. It is the processes of making stress adrenocortical (stress) hormones like cortisol and the body's attempts to maintain homeostasis that leave us with deficiencies in key nutrients, and feeling burnt out and exhausted.
As a nutritionist supporting people recovering from OCD and other mental health problems, part of the plan for my clients often includes addressing the nutrient-depleting effects of the stress response, which has been activated by trauma and excessive stress. By addressing the nutrient deficiencies brought on and worsened by your stress and trauma, you can begin to feel more relaxed and experience significant reduction in symptoms like insomnia, sleep problems, PMS, an excessive startle response, fatigue, irritability, digestive problems (constipation, loose bowl motions, bloating, reflux), depleted immune function (frequent illness and infections), depression, racing mind and especially chronic anxiety.
This is one of the more personal articles I’ve written on OCD recovery. I hope that in sharing a little of my experience of this environmental contributor to the development of OCD, you may gain deeper understanding of your own experience of OCD. And know that you are not alone.
And if you’d like my help with recovering from OCD, contact me using the form below.
“What hurt am I running from right now? Can I open my heart to the idea and image of soothing myself in my pain?” ~ Pete Walker
Walker, Pete. (2013) Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. Azure Coyote, Washington.
Pete Walker's book is available at Amazon.