The Connection Between Stressors & Weight Gain
This high school prom queen and celebrated beauty queen lost her crown on senior float night. Too many drinks and that friendly social lubricant had turned against her. How dare they?
Haunted by the flashbacks of laughter, the faces, the clanking of bottles in a twisted comradery of high fives. Letterman’s jackets and school emblems engraved in a mental prison that shames her daily. Ten years later and her pain still feels like yesterday.
If they only knew what a life time debt would be paid on this unforgiving soul. Every unsuccessful relationship attempt, every job lost, every fight with a friend projects the past of unloveable and a less than being into the center of the bonds that inevitably crumble. She carries a filth leading into the framework of her identity for every relationship she builds. The shield of weight soothed her and punished her all at the same time.
This five year old experienced a traumatic loss in what should have, could have been a celebration of new life in the family. Instead, fights in school and time in the principals office led to punishment and a greater sense of separation from his loving stable figures in his life.
He carried this pain until he found relief that seemed to work for him until it didn’t.
Science of Food & Emotions
“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.
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. In looking at the mechanisms of the nervous system under stress and trauma, there are direct connections to trauma and weight gain.
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 or experience. 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.
In childhood development, 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 is 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 are children we lean to our caregivers’ nervous systems to support us. Yet 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.
In discussing weight gain and trauma 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 intimate or close relationships.
When we don’t know how to self-soothe, when we we are 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, getting outside in nature, doing yoga or other body-mind practices, taking baths, getting a massage, 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.
For some, weight is a consequence of emotional eating. Emotions may become too high-risk. They’ve been through so much already that they’d rather avoid further pain. They’d rather push down the depression, anxiety, anger and confusion. They may use food to numb their feelings or soothe their discomfort. Perhaps it started out as a once-in-awhile comforting treat and mushroomed into a full-fledged habit: Heading for the fridge or pantry becomes an automatic reaction to upset, discomfort and anxiety."
Gratefully, there are solutions and supplemental methods to help address behavior patterns and belief systems that don’t serve the framework for our best selves and living a fulfilling life. I’ve been blessed to meet and learn about Luca Bosurgi and the Bosurgi Method. (MindFitnessLab.com) I’ve also been invited to share in a product launch, bringing cutting edge technology and methodologies to enhance behaviors through 3D Meditations that you can experience from an app on your phone from your living room. The sessions are amazing! I’ve done them myself and I felt an immediate sense of detachment from old pain and a gained sense of self leadership and power of choice.
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