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5 signs your weight problem is trauma related

5 signs your weight problem is trauma related
Victims of abuse are more likely to turn to food to regulate their emotions.

The connection between maladaptive eating behaviours such as calorie restriction, food addictions, binge eating and grazing, and trauma is widely accepted as significant (see research below). If you struggle to keep a healthy weight, it is worth considering that a change of diet alone might not be enough to produce lasting effects. To gain greater awareness of how your mental health affects your relationship with food, here are 5 signs your weight problem is trauma related:

1- You eat emotionally to soothe yourself. Emotional eating is motivated by negative feelings such as loneliness, tiredness, anxiety, sadness, shame, guilt and anger that are stored in the body from traumatic events. Victims of emotional abuse, physical neglect and/or sexual abuse are more likely to turn to food to regulate their emotions and deal with traumatic stress (Kong et al, 2009). Or as Stojek MM et al (2019) point out, “From a psychological perspective, consuming high-calorie foods that stimulate the reward neurocircuitry may be a powerful emotion regulation strategy in response to increased stress”.

2- You overeat to defy authority. You express anger at your abusive caregivers and control over you own body by overeating or eating whatever you want not to conform with their rigid diet and beauty standards.

3- You undereat to defy authority. You express your anger at your abusive caregivers and control over you own body by dieting and becoming smaller/thinner and making them jealous or resentful of your autonomy and weight loss.

4- Your weight makes you feel safe. You feel stronger when physically bigger or “invisible”, in a way that makes you feel protected from attracting attention to yourself and less vulnerable to abuse.

5- You are addicted to sugar. Unresolved childhood trauma and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) “commonly co-occur with addiction” (Flanagan et al, 2016). Sugar is used to soothe traumatic stress, and it serves the same purpose of other addictive substances such as alcohol and drugs.

A trauma aware approach is essential if you are committed to overcoming an eating disorder or managing your weight effectively. For a successful outcome, combine a healthy diet with psychological treatment of unresolved trauma and address your health wholistically, from head to toe.

 

References:

Kong, Seong & Bernstein, Kunsook. (2009). Childhood trauma as a predictor of eating psychopathology and its mediating variables in patients with eating disorders. Journal of clinical nursing. 18. 1897-907. 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2008.02740.x.

Flanagan JC, Korte KJ, Killeen TK, Back SE. Concurrent Treatment of Substance Use and PTSD. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2016 Aug;18(8):70. doi: 10.1007/s11920-016-0709-y. PMID: 27278509; PMCID: PMC4928573.

Stojek MM, Maples-Keller JL, Dixon HD, Umpierrez GE, Gillespie CF, Michopoulos V. Associations of childhood trauma with food addiction and insulin resistance in African-American women with diabetes mellitus. Appetite. 2019 Oct 1;141:104317. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2019.104317. Epub 2019 Jun 8. PMID: 31185252; PMCID: PMC6629477.

Where does the belief “I am not good enough” come from?

Where does the belief “I am not good enough” come from?
When the negative belief “I am not good enough” is active, we feel insecure and doubt ourselves

When the negative belief “I am not good enough” is active, we feel insecure and doubt ourselves. We question our intelligence and competence. What is more, we become hypervigilant and dependent on external approval to feel less anxious. If you would like to gain more control over that process, I recommend making the link between that core belief and your unresolved childhood trauma. Adverse experiences, such as suffering bullying at school, work to gives such negative beliefs their strength. When that connection is found, you are in a more powerful position to break it and free yourself from its effects on your self-esteem.

If you do not know where to begin, here are some examples of traumatic events experienced in childhood that make you think you are not good enough as an adult:

  • Your school grades, even when very good or excellent, were never good enough for your primary caregivers. When you shared your marks with them, you were asked who else got them or if you were the first or second best in your class.
  • Your primary caregivers were not emotionally present when you shared your school grades with them. Your efforts were neither validated nor dismissed by them, they were just not interested enough to care.
  • Your school and/or teachers were ignorant or not equipped with the right tools to deal with your psychological vulnerability, such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Asperger’s. You felt bad for being different, lonely and even alienated by that lack of support.
  • You were too hungry, tired, angry or scared/anxious to be able to focus at school. You struggled to concentrate and/or lacked the structure to be able to learn as your classmates.

How did your brain build this notion that you are not good enough? What are the negative events that work as “proof” of your supposed incompetence? Go somewhere private and focus your attention on your breathing for 1 minute. After that, feel yourself connecting with your body, from head to toe. Set an intention to be guided by it, to find a connection between “I am not good enough” with an adverse event from your childhood. Finally, notice where it takes you. Once your brain has given you an image, allow yourself to be present with it. Notice the effects it has on your psyche, body and emotions. Repeat that practice on different days until you the image has no negative effect on you.

Self-care requires effort

Self-care requires effort
Meditation, breathing exercises and personal grooming are all examples of self-care practices

It is usual for those invested in their mental and physical health to know a thing or two about self-care. As a trauma counsellor, I talk to my clients openly about the importance of a self-care routine. A self-care routine comprises regular practices that promote wellbeing. Meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, eating healthily, walking and personal grooming are all examples of self-care practices. When you incorporate them successfully into your daily routine, you can say you practice good self-care. Those who practice self-care regularly feel more balanced and less susceptible to emotional overwhelm.

If looking after ourselves does us so much good, why don’t we all do it? Why do we need to be reminded by our therapists to stick to a self-care routine? Because self-care, for most of us, requires effort. Treating oneself with care might not come naturally, especially for those who suffered neglect and abuse growing up. Complex trauma victims tend to have a complicated relationship with their bodies. For such individuals, neglecting and even abusing themselves may feel more instinctual than delaying gratification to prioritise long term health.

Hypervigilance – a very common effect of childhood trauma – makes one feel constantly on high alert or stuck on fight or flight mode. Those who suffer from hypervigilance are prone to armouring (tension in various parts of the body), excessive worrying and anxiety. Hypervigilant bodies are also restless and impatient. Therefore, daily meditation for someone with hypervigilance is a huge effort. In such cases, focusing on the breath and observing thoughts without judgement feels counterintuitive, when all one wants to do is to get up and do something else. When you do not feel safe in your body, your instinct is to escape it.

If you are a developmental/childhood trauma survivor, or you have suffered neglect and/or abuse growing up, it is important to be kind to yourself. Just because self-care is good for you, it does not mean it is easily done. Chances are you will find it hard to incorporate it into your daily routine, and then find it harder to maintain it. Do not give up. Most importantly, do not punish yourself for not being able to get it right, right away. Give yourself time. You are teaching your body a new trick – something it does not know – so give it time to learn and get used to it. With time, you will start enjoying to benefits of treating yourself with care, love and respect. Be patient and trust the process.

Your hypervigilant brain is not your friend

Your hypervigilant brain is not your friend
Hypervigilant brains are on constant lookout for danger

As thinking beings, we display a natural tendency to believe in our thoughts. We are also eager to confirm our biases and feel reassured when our theories about the world, ourselves and others seem to be true. However, reality – as well as human beings – is extremely complex. In our urge to soothe ourselves with the help of our intellect, we fail to take into consideration several variables that would influence our understanding of reality. We limit our perception to what we already know to feel safe, even when that knowledge does not favour our wellbeing.

That bias is even more pronounced in the traumatised brain. For victims of relational trauma, for instance, approaching relationships with neutrality, without taking things personally is often a challenge. Because their brains are hypervigilant, they are on constant lookout for danger. It is important for individuals on that state of fight or flight to protect themselves against hurt, something they know so well. To feel safe, their brains rush to give them explanations to their anxiety and insecurity. Are you put off by the idea of meeting new people? That is probably because they will reject you and leave you. Such negative and irrational thinking, even when prejudicial to mental and relational health, helps the socially fearful regulate themselves. Once the threat is out of the way (meeting new people), there is nothing to worry about.

Your brain is not, necessarily, your friend. It is at times, but, at others, it might not be. It is not always right – especially when traumatised and hypervigilant – no matter how strongly you feel about your thoughts. When you become mindful of that, your life changes. If you have suffered trauma in the context of a relationship, be very suspicious about what your brain has to say about people. Remind yourself that is trying to protect you, in a very imperfect and rigid way. Approach your thoughts with an open mind and force yourself to consider new perspectives. Resist the urge to be soothed by negative theories to why you should never trust others and tolerate the discomfort that arises from throwing yourself into the unknow, with a blind faith in your competence and the kindness of others. Challenge your brain’s resistance to allow you to learn from experience. You can tolerate the hurt, if it arises, and get over it as with emotional strength and maturity.

Reconnecting with unmet needs: the anger alarm

Emotions are powerful tools that help us connect with the environment, other people and ourselves. Emotions such as guilt and anger warn us of the effects of our own actions and the actions of others. When you notice your words have hurt someone, for instance, you feel guilty and, at times, angry at yourself. A need to repair the relationship arises. You apologise. Therefore, negative emotions also trigger actions that lead to positive changes.

Although guilt is considered a negative emotion, most agree on the positive effects of its triggered behaviours. Unfortunately, this attitude tends not to apply to anger, since it is largely misunderstood. Anger is judged indiscriminately. It is considered destructive, or solely as an impulse that must be controlled. While aggressive displays of anger hardly go unnoticed, their causes often do. However, anger expression in its unhealthy and abusive forms should not override anger’s purpose.

Reconnecting with unmet needs the anger alarm
Anger helps us identify unmet needs

The anger alarm

Anger helps us identify unmet needs. Anger that follows feelings of rejection reminds us of our need to be loved. When we feel angry for not achieving our goals, we connect with our need to create a life that has meaning. Feeling loved and living a meaningful life increase wellbeing. Wellbeing promotes physical, emotional and relational health.

Anger also lets us know our boundaries have been crossed. When we say no and are not heard, we feel unimportant and disrespected. Feeling less than or alienated connect us with the need to be valued and belong. When our existence is validated, we feel a greater sense of connection with ourselves and others, which, in turn, makes us more eager to engage in life.

In The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger Management: Finding the Gift, Rosenberg (2005) brings our attention to the significance of anger as an empowering warning system. He explains that anger brings our attention to the needs we want to have met and suggests a change of focus from the judgement that we make of ourselves and others when triggered by anger to what we need and want.

Beyond anger

A healthy relationship with anger is one which allows you to see beyond it. Anger is highly energising and even addictive since it triggers feelings of strength and righteousness. We need to train ourselves to resist the pull to move in this direction. A mindful attitude towards anger helps you focus on what truly matters: identify and connect with unmet needs, be them yours or others’. This process, although productive, does not materialise overnight. It requires dedicated practice. To create a healthy relationship with anger, allow yourself to try this process out and make mistakes, over a reasonable period, until it becomes internalised.

Reference:

Rosenberg, M. B. (2005). The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger Management: Finding the Gift. PuddleDancer Press

How to access the healing power of grief

Grief is a biological and emotional/psychological healing process. We go through it to process our losses, regardless of their nature. Those who open themselves to grief, experience emotional and even physical pain. As no grieving process is alike, some might experience it more intensely than others. While some connect more easily with anger and guilt, others might struggle to feel anything other than deep sadness. While there is no right way of grieving, its healing power is universal.

How to access the healing power of grief
To access the healing power of grief, you need to nurture a mindful attitude

Unfortunately for those who agree on the benefits of grieving, awareness alone does not make connecting with this process any easier. Thinking it is a good idea to go grieve does not lead you there. Listening to sad songs might not trigger it either. That is because grief is sneaky, it hits you when you least expect – when you are clothes shopping or eating your dinner, for instance. It is also slippery; it escapes your grip when all you want is to control it.

To access the healing power of grief, you need to nurture a mindful attitude to the changes you experience in your body. Bodily sensations carry precious information not only about our physiology, but also about our feelings. Sadness and anger – grief’s main emotions – have their way of expressing themselves. Think about how you feel when you experience both. Make a mental inventory of the negative bodily sensations you connect with feeling sad, such as heaviness in your upper body, pressure in your chest and feeling like you have a lump in your throat and tears behind your eyes. Do the same with anger.

Once that knowledge is at the front of your awareness, it will be hard not to connect with grief when it strikes. As you notice its presence, turn your attention to it. Drop what you are doing and sit with it, literally. If for any reason that is not possible – you are at work or busy with something important – make a mental note to connect with it later. Do not leave it for another day but make time for feeling what comes up – whether it is anger, sadness or guilt – as soon as you can.

Taking time to grieve when you notice its presence is the best strategy to heal. An honest and proactive attitude also helps you through your healing journey. Approaching your grieving process with openness and without shame supports mental health and sets a wonderful example of maturity and strength to those who are influenced by you.