Are you overweight and wondering is it something to do with my childhood? So what is the connection between childhood trauma and weight?
Being overweight is so misunderstood. People who have never experienced difficulties with their weight think it is as easy as eat less and exercise and hey bingo we lose the weight. If it was that easy, we would all be super slim. Sliming companies and gyms focus on the diet and working out, which yes is very important but they are missing a huge factor in weight loss and that is the psychological and emotional side to it.
It gets missed because I think it is not understood, it is not as tangible as being able to see and measure food and exercise and it is so individual to each persons experience. It is also not a quick fix, which is what we often want to see. When going to heal ourselves it is not as easy as seeing the connection between eating and what we have gone through in childhood. So here are 3 ways on your childhood could have affected your eating.
1. Brain development.
When we are children our brains are developing at a very fast rate. We are building neurons. These are pathways that get built and then connect to one another which result in us being able to think and do things. Any behaviour that we do repeatedly goes into the unconscious quickly and automatically. Think of it like a road system. When we drive down a new path we have to concentrate very hard. When that road has been well travelled it turns into a motorway and how often have we travelled and wondered how we got to this place? We did some of it unconsciously.
Our brain at an early age is quick to change and respond to the outside environment, hence one episode of childhood trauma and the brain builds around that, but ongoing trauma is going to have a much more detrimental effect. In trauma, pathways are built in response to the trauma and this stops our other pathways from forming, or they are slower to form.
As children we will learn very quickly how to respond to that trauma that will be essential for our survival. We might develop a response mechanism to the trauma, like defending ourselves, like believing something is our fault and this becomes a default way of thinking. It becomes habitual because of the repeated trauma. Because that behaviour or ways of thinking has gone into the unconscious it stays with us as we grow older so the pattern repeats and we do not know why. As adults that same behaviour might manifest as having to hide our emotions, being overly defensive. That repeated trauma and the stress of it gets stored in our body and the feelings have been suppressed, yet it needs a release and hence why people will turn to food, alcohol, drugs or other detrimental behaviours.
When we experience stress, adrenalin gets released and then we go into what is known as the flight or fight response. We are on high alert, treading on eggshells. This causes us psychologically to change our behaviours according to the situation and we learn to either run or fight. This can end up us being drained, failing at school, not finding friends and that can result in us having this love/hate relationship with food. We are avoiding it, running away from it. Or we indulge and then hate it for overindulging. Food turns out to be a great way to release stress, and then as this continues that pathway in the brain becomes so used the behaviour then becomes an unconscious response. In other words we are doing the behaviour and before long we don’t know why.
When we suffer childhood trauma it changes the make up and development of our brains. This is called operant and classical conditioning. This is where we learn how to behave based on positive or negative reinforcement. It is the basis on which we teach our children how to behave, they do something good we reward them, do something naughty we discipline them. In trauma sufferers they would have learnt by this conditioning to behave in certain ways. They would also in the case of obesity, maybe have found positive reinforcement with food. It was comforting, it was a friend and it did not give children grief.
In response to food, we would have made our relationships with food instead of people and we have trained our brains from an early age that food could protect us or keep people away from us. Food could have been used negatively, or there could have been negative associations made with food when younger. Adults telling children they are fat and doctors putting children on diets all is crushing to the self esteem. That builds this disordered relationship with food.
A lot of what I see in my clients, is that they have been through horrible experiences of abuse. This could be bullying, abusive parents, sexual, psychological, emotional abuse. This could have been from peers in the playground to our caregivers. As a child it is very traumatic to be shouted at repeatedly. A lot of sexual abuse survivors find food as a protection. If I am fat, I won’t get any unwanted attention. No one will pay me attention if I am overweight. It is a form of conditioning that we have learnt. It is a behaviour that may well work when as children. But as adults we can see it was adults behaviour that was wrong, not ours.
However the pain could still linger or we may not want to face those feelings that we have from it. Unfortunately, the more we leave it and not face it, our eating issues will continue. From experience, when you do face the pain and work through it, life does get a lot better.