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.
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.
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.