During the The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, researchers found that there was a direct link between early traumatic experiences and addiction, health issues, mood disorders and high-risk behaviors and while it may be an oversimplification to state that our current behavioral patterns stem from past experiences — the data is undeniable. Could there also be a link between weight gain and trauma? The answer is yes.
Trauma + Stress
Biologically, no two people are alike and there are many factors and variables to consider that have the power to influence unwanted weight gain such as poor dietary habits, physical inactivity, illness or lifestyle but at the tip top of that list is stress. Stress is something that can affect us all in a very real way and people who have experienced trauma in the past may not have completely worked through their particular experience.
Fluctuation in weight is generally the body’s response to an event. In many cases high levels of stress caused by trauma are long-term and create barriers between the mind and body making it difficult to listen to the body’s cues that guide against developing destructive behaviors. The stress hormone the body produces, cortisol, by design will increase blood pressure and appetite potentially causing people to overeat or binge eat. However, the manner in which stress and trauma affect the body is unique to us. For some, weight gain is a barrier and for others it could be a physical representation of their emotional state.
Weight gain for one person may represent unwanted sexual attention and for another, it may be as sign that that person feels they deserve to be seen. Once a person can identify and understand the reasons why they are fluctuating in weight, they can work more harmoniously with their body to achieve balance.
Trauma + the Nervous System
Many trauma experts will say that trauma is not what happened to you, but what lingers in our nervous system after the fact.
Our nervous system is developed during our childhood years. During this time, our first line of defense is our Social Engagement System. Our body was designed in such a way that when we began to cry, our primary caregivers would respond and begin to soothe and nurture us. This shared act using the Social Engagement System, is how we learn to soothe ourselves when experiencing our first fight or flight moments as young children. These years are crucial in developing this response. If the conscious or subsconious mind can neither ‘fight or flee’, the body and mind move into a passive defense of ‘freeze and faint’. This is where traumatic activation happens. If we are unable to move out of ‘freeze and faint’ the trauma remains in our nervous system. Because of this it is very important that caregivers provide a safe environment where children can learn to safely self-soothe.
Many adults of childhood trauma have a hard time self-soothing, often feel paralyzed in moments of high stress and have difficulty managing their emotional experiences. The nervous system can remain in chronic states of stress, oscillating in and out of traumatic states. This can very easily lead to food and substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors to calm down the mind and “check out” of the body. Checking out of the body makes it impossible to feel the bodily cues telling that it is enough, which can lead to more of the self-destructive habit and that will in turn reinforce the panic and a higher need for more self-destructive soothing.
Trauma + Healing
Although trauma can be daunting it doesn’t have to dictate your life. When you understand the underlying mechanism behind weight gain (weight loss) you are able to re-write the book that is your past, present and future. Weight gain is one of the ways the body unconsciously is trying to protect itself and is making an effort to meet the needs of the conscious mind. Instead of reacting in a negative tone to weight gain, we can learn to view it as a signal and thank our body for establishing a protective boundary. Learning to self-sooth and work with the body to regulate the nervous system can be constructive and allow for more positive engagements with stress in the future.