The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study was one of the largest studies on the long-term effects of childhood trauma. They found that there was a strong and direct link between early childhood traumatic experiences and addiction, mood disorders, health issues of all kinds, and high-risk behavior. The more traumatic experiences someone had, the greater correlation to health problems and addictions. This may come as no surprise to many. But is there a link between weight gain and trauma?
It’s difficult to tease apart the exact causal links when doing human studies, because there are many variables that cannot be accounted for. However, many studies have linked weight gain and trauma. For example, a 2007 study in Pediatrics journal found that girls who were sexually abused were twice as likely to be obese by age 24. For some, however, sexual, emotional, or physical trauma can lead to eating disorders. For others, no adverse effects in weight happen at all. While we can’t speak to causality, we can certainly look at what we know from experience and the mechanisms of the nervous system under stress and trauma.
Etiologies of Weight Gain
No two people are alike, and there are many varied factors that can influence why someone may gain unwanted weight. Some are biological, such as eating an irritating food or having a low thyroid function. These would be resolved by biological means, such as a change in diet or adding some thyroid hormone. For others, it’s emotional eating, or eating more than the body physically needs in order to soothe emotions. In this case, people may simply need some guidance around other ways to self-soothe, such as enjoyable forms of exercise, drinking tea, journaling, talking to friends, etc.
But for those with trauma histories, weight gain can be the result of high amounts of cortisol in the body, and a function of a psychological boundary that the body creates when the conscious mind cannot directly address a traumatic issue. For one person, weight can represent a barrier to unwanted sexual attention. For another person, weight can signify that they matter and deserve to be seen. For others still, weight can be a way to feel less vulnerable to physical or emotional attacks. For people with weight gain and trauma, it can be important to understand how to resolve the trauma(s) that the body may be holding. Once there’s an understanding of where it comes from, we can increase functioning and achieve balance of weight and stress hormones.
Many trauma experts will tell you that trauma is not necessarily what happens to you; it’s what gets stuck in your nervous system as the result of a lack of resources to properly digest the experience. In other words, trauma is not just what comes in; it’s the lack of ability to get it out of our nervous systems. What does that all mean?
How Our Nervous Systems Work — Stress and Trauma
Let’s look out how are nervous systems work. As humans, we’re born 18-24 years prematurely. It’s Nature’s trade-off that in order for us to have fully-developed big brains AND come through the birth canal in one piece (for both mom and baby), we have to have a period of growth, called childhood. In this time, we’re developing our nervous systems—our ability to refine our muscle coordination, control our bodily functions, self-soothe our emotions, and learn all sorts of tasks.
Under best circumstances, our first line of defense is always our Social Engagement System. We are designed such that, when we cry, our primary caregivers are responsive and we learn to soothe through them soothing us first. This doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but there’s repair when things go wrong, giving us a trust that our needs will be met. If there’s a dangerous situation, our nervous systems kick in with the second line of defense, which are mobile defenses—fight or flight. If we resolve the danger by either fleeing or fighting of our own accord, we turn that stress into resilience. We expand our confidence and our capacity for need frustration.
However, if our conscious or unconscious mind decides within a millisecond that we can neither fight nor flee this threat of our own accord, we move into passive defenses—freeze and faint—and this is where traumatic activation happens. It doesn’t remain as trauma in our systems if we can move the activation out by remaining present with our experience and allowing our bodies to move those mobile defenses through. When we’re children, this usually means borrowing our caregivers’ nervous systems to support us. But this is something most first world humans don’t know how to do anymore. So, if we have traumatic activation and not a lot of social support for emotional expression, we can oscillate between a state of panic and dissociation.
Weight Gain and Trauma
For now, the relevance of this information to weight gain and trauma is that for most children—who are captive to much larger adults and institutional systems from which they cannot escape—what would be stressful to adults automatically enters traumatic activation. When we have caregivers who cannot name our emotional experiences or put their own needs aside temporarily to help us regulate our nervous systems, we can have attachment traumas. Attachment traumas are traumas we cannot necessarily point to as one event, but they are apparent in our repetitive patterns with close relationships.
When we don’t know how to self-soothe, when we were told something is wrong with us, when the adults who were supposed to be our safety were also the danger, we can turn to other objects to self-soothe. As adults of childhood (or adult) trauma, our nervous systems can remain in chronic states of stress, oscillating in and out of traumatic states, and we can use food, substances, or high-risk behaviors to calm down, often by checking out. When we’re checked out of our bodies, it can be difficult to feel our bodily cues telling us that we’ve had enough. So, we can have more and more of that destructive habit and that reinforces the panic and the need for more self-destructive soothing.
However, trauma doesn’t have to dictate a lifetime of unwanted weight gain or misery. The idea is that when we understand the underlying mechanism of the weight gain, we can more directly meet our needs. There is intelligence to the body holding weight as an unconscious boundary or protection. The body is simply trying to meet needs that our conscious minds may not know how to handle. When we can utilize adequate support and thank our bodies for holding a boundary we may not have known to set, we can start to take over that task consciously and relieve our bodies from that job.
Learning how to self-soothe and regulate our nervous systems in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner helps us to stay in our social engagement systems and out of the traumatic activation. Removing toxic relationships and limiting unnecessary stress is a good way to support our nervous systems to remain within a window of tolerance. Practicing good sleep hygiene and making sure we don’t take caffeine or stimulating substances before bedtime is another way to support our bodies toward balance. Seeing a therapist, journaling, walking, doing yoga or other body-mind practices, taking baths, getting a massage from a trusted source, and eating nourishing foods are all ways to soothe constructively. As we do this, we may begin to eliminate the need for excess foods, and feed our psyches what they’re really craving.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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