Dr. Gregory Jantz

Encourage Physical Healing After Childhood Abuse

February 20, 2020

Hypervigilance can be a by-product of childhood abuse. Even the thought of relaxing, of letting down one’s guard, produces stress, fear, and anxiety. When you feel you are never safe, your body is under siege. Over years, this can take a physical toll.   

Recovery from childhood abuse requires healing on a variety of levels. One level that tends to be overlooked is the physical level. Once the scars, bruising, and welts heal, people often falsely assume the physical consequences are over. But just as emotional and cognitive healing requires intentionality and effort, so does physical healing. Fortunately, the body has a great capacity for recovery and restoration.

The body is neither an enemy, nor a silent partner. Many of the clients I have worked with have ignored their bodies’ needs in a myriad of ways—from starving to bingeing, from substance abuse to supplement abuse, from those who never stop to rest to those who never rise to move.

The body is a complex system of muscles and tendons, neurotransmitters and hormones, of systems you see and systems you do not. In contrast to the complexity of the human body is the simplicity of physical restoration. Though I’m not a medical professional, I’ve found that eating healthy, getting exercise, and properly hydrating are several ways to help the body recover. 

Eat Healthy. It sounds so simple, yet I’ve found people have a difficult time accomplishing this. People at my clinic work with me, as well as with registered dietitians, who are trained to understand the connection between what you eat and how you feel. While the dietitians’ interaction with each person is individualized, they teach certain constants:

  • Eat whole foods. These include fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products. 
  • Avoid artificial anything, from additives to flavorings to sweeteners.
  • Don’t be afraid of healthy fats and oils, especially flaxseed and olive and canola oil.
  • Watch for hidden added sugars, trans fats, and salts.
  • Round out your meals with a mix of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Healthy eating is not only what you eat, but how you eat. Have you ever found yourself cramming down food in the heat of the moment, only to finish and have no real recollection of what you just ate? Food is not a necessary evil nor is a meal meant to be an indulgent free-for-all. Food should be consumed intentionally, with awareness of what you are eating.
Survivors of childhood abuse can have difficulty eating healthy. Sometimes they were not taught what a healthy meal looks like. Other times, they grew up scavenging for themselves, the only criteria for a meal being what tasted the best. Sometimes the abuse they suffered involved food—food was withheld through neglect or punishment or used as a way to force compliance.

Depending on how food and meals factored into your abusive childhood, eating healthy may be compromised. You may not know what healthy eating looks like or feels like. If food, and your relationship to food, has become tangled up with your childhood abuse, please don’t despair. Mental health and medical professionals can work in tandem to help you unlock what’s not working and teach you what will.

Exercise. I tend to use the word exercise for this recommendation because, if I said “movement,” some of you might get the wrong idea. But these words really could be used interchangeably. You don’t have to become a gym rat to be healthy. Rather, you need to find ways, both structured and casual, to move more. We don’t move enough.

The whole body should be moved and stretched, extended and pushed. Of course, the goal is to benefit the body, not to push the body too far. Knowing the difference can be confusing, so I always recommend people work with their physicians or a personal trainer (the personal trainer at my clinic also happens to be a registered nurse) to ease into exercise if they are new to it or ease up on exercise if they are overdoing it.

Hydration. I’ve heard varying percentages over the years about the adequate amount of water humans should consume per day, but what stays consistent is that many Americans walk around every day chronically dehydrated. In short, we don’t drink enough water. Notice, I didn’t say liquid. We drink plenty of soda and coffee and other beverages, but not enough water. 

You know you need to drink more water, but how much is enough? The answer depends on your gender, body size, geographic location, and how much you sweat. The “right” amount of water for you might vary from day to day, depending on where you are and what you’re doing. Since many of us are unintentionally dehydrated, it makes sense that we would need to become more intentional about the water we drink.

Sleep Hygiene. Those who have suffered childhood abuse can have a difficult time achieving restful sleep. For some, the abuse they experienced may have occurred in or around the bedroom or at night. Nighttime, then, is not seen as a time to unwind and relax, but a time of increased danger and vigilance. For others, the quiet of night is invaded by the remembered sounds, sights, and smells of their abuse. Nighttime is not a time to relax, but a time to relive. Still others may find it difficult to reach a point of relaxation when their entire day has been spent in frantic activity.  

Below are some simple strategies that may be beneficial when looking to improve your nighttime routine: 

  • Turn off all electronics.
  • Listen to light, soft music.
  • Establish a routine and try to get to bed at the same time each night. 
  • Eliminate caffeine late into the afternoon and evening. 
  • Avoid large amounts of food late into the evening. 

To encourage recovery from childhood abuse, you must begin to view your body as a precious gift, something to be grateful for and worthy of protection.

Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE in Edmonds, Washington, voted a top ten facility for the treatment of depression in the United States. Dr. Jantz pioneered Whole Person Care in the 1980’s and is a world-renowned expert on eating disordersdepressionanxietytechnology addiction, and abuse. He is a leading voice and innovator in Mental Health utilizing a variety of therapies including nutrition, sleep therapy, spiritual counseling, and advanced DBT techniques. Dr. Jantz is a best-selling author of 40 books and has appeared on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN.