What does trauma have to do with food compulsions?
(Friends, this page came to be when the topic of trauma came up in one of our When Food is Your Mother classes. I wrote this page for the class to help with three things: to deepen our understanding about how trauma impacts our relationship with food, to point people to helpful resources, and to clarify the limits of how we can and can’t help with trauma. We now offer this page to all our readers with the same intentions. Our wish for you is that you may be deeply supported and held by warm, gentle hands as your trauma heals.)
Behind compulsive overeating, binge eating, body hatred, sugar soothing, and other food and body compulsions there’s often some form of emotional loss. Emotional loss can take many forms – trauma, developmental loss, the everyday losses of normal life, addiction, abuse, alienation, isolation, grief, separation, intergenerational trauma, and more.
This emotional loss lives in our bodies and in our nervous systems. She speaks her story in our emotions and body sensations, in our behaviors and coping strategies.
Unresolved trauma impacts the nervous system and can lead to an activated system – anxiety, agitation, hypervigilance, and hyperarousal. We can also feel frozen, shut down, or collapsed.
Food compulsions are often the brain’s way of trying to feel safe, an attempt to care for the overarousal and soften the anxiety that feels too much too bear. They’re an intelligent, creative attempt to solve a problem, to care for pain.
As Bonnie Badenoch says, “All behavior is adaptive.” Sometimes it helps to stop, to pause and feel this statement in the body – especially as it goes against so many of our cultural messages that imply that we should ‘take control’ of ourselves.
What do you feel when you behold your behaviors with food as adaptive coping strategies, as a way your brain and body are trying to take care of you?
What do you feel when you notice, “There’s something so tender there, underneath the food?”
The energy release of food
Overeating and restrictive eating, while messy, yes, and while leading to other problems, yes, also serve a purpose. They can both act as energy releasing behaviors – they can numb what feels overwhelming, and they can move and soften the build up of tension and overarousal from bearing emotional pain.
Restriction can be a way to keep the overwhelming feelings at bay, to feel in control of what feels so out of control.
Overdoing – binge eating and overeating – is also a pursuit of safety. But in this case, the safety isn’t found in control but in the food itself. The food has become a substitute harbor, a secure base.
Eating the food brings relief from these overwhelming feelings and brings a sense of security and safety – which is what makes overeating so sticky. Temporarily, and from an energetic standpoint, it works.
Food compulsions are emotional bonds
Over time, we can become emotionally bonded to the food (or food rituals) that we turn to in order to feel calm, soothed, and safe. Some examples may include soothing with ice cream every evening after dinner, a morning coffee ritual with sugar and cream, or a nightly binge of snack foods.
Emotional bonds are instinctual, rooted in our survival machinery. This emotional bond is why we speak about food as a best friend, mother or lover. It’s also why food compulsions are something above and beyond the physiological response we may receive from eating something sweet, fatty, salty, or tasty.
We’re designed to create emotional bonds – it’s why we crave connection and belonging, and why relationships, love, and interdependence are essential to our very being. As one founder of attachment theory, Dr. John Bowlby put it, attachment (love, connection, and bonding with close others), is something that we need “from the cradle to the grave.”
Human beings are born in and for relationship – relationships with our caregivers, our communities, with each other, with the natural world and all her beings, with Love, with our bodies, hearts and minds, and with ourselves, the rich inner ecosystem of our humanity.
The fractures in the soil
When we experience trauma, loss, and separation, what often happens is that the brain seeks out relational substitutes – an attachment relationship that offers us safety, rest, and holding. In the absence of safe relationships with others, we wisely seek out an alternative – for example, food!
Food is a less vulnerable substitute for what we may find in loving relationship.
So a bond with food is both a reflection of our “attachment hunger” (our hunger for emotional and relational connection) and our attempt to satiate it.
Food compulsions speak to the fractures of relationship that we’ve endured, what lies within our bodies and our nervous systems. I think of them akin to a crack in the earth when there’s been drought: something happened here.
Something bearing witness to what happened.
Likewise, the fields of trauma, neuroscience, and epigenetics are speaking to the ways we all carry ancestral and intergenerational trauma – perhaps even the trauma of our environment and earth herself. These, too, live in our bodies and impact our relationship with food. These, too, bear witness to what happened.
How our culture’s discomfort with emotion impacts our relationship to trauma
I think it’s important to pause and take a moment to reflect on this word ’emotional’ and our culture’s relationship to emotion. Likewise, the term ’emotional eating’ is tossed around in our culture without a lot of care, seen as something negative or ‘not to do.’
Modern, Western culture is often left brain, versus right brain oriented (Ian McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary is the best resource to learn more about this idea.) One consequence of a culture that’s too ‘left brain’ centric – a left brain that’s unmitigated by the right brain – is a discomfort with emotions, emotional expression, and emotional processing.
We all swim in the seas of our cultures. And culture impacts how others respond to our emotional expressions. So we carry not only our own emotions in our bodies but also the reactions of other people to our emotions in our bodies.
When our cultures are uncomfortable with emotions or vulnerability, we all feel – and ingest – this imprint. It’s a form of food, as much as the physical food we take into our bodies. We feel the presence of these implicit messages, especially if we’re someone who feels deeply, is highly sensitive, or who carries trauma in our bodies. (One symptom of undigested trauma is the emotional dysregulation living in our bodies and nervous systems.)
We see these implicit messages about needing to ‘be on top of’ or in ‘control’ of our emotions throughout our cultures and communities – even in well meaning and beauty filled mindulness, therapeutic, and spiritual cultures. If we look deeper, we can even see the long roots of our discomfort with emotion in entrepreneurial and ‘hustle’ culture, in the popularity of Stoicism, in wellness and nutrition and health circles, and in how we relate to ageing and death.
These roots appear as negative beliefs about emotions and anything we do that’s ’emotional,’ as if the healthiest or most mature way to do something is devoid of emotion or any emotional motivation.
But these roots also appear more subtly – as a shying away or distancing from emotion, a valueing of intellect over feeling, a shaming or intellectual approach to feelings of fear, an overvaluing and esteeming of people who embody success, self reliance, individuation, victory over hardship, and who ‘overcome’ their struggles, and a discomfort with ‘negative emotions,’ tears, sadness, rage, and anger (all vital feelings to feel when processing trauma and common feelings that arise when we touch pockets of frozen fear.)
Thankfully, this is changing!
Fortunately, these messages are changing (I bow my head to all of those who have worked on this behalf), and are changing by the confluence of many different streams: interpersonal neurobiology, emotion based therapeutic models (like EFT, Emotion Focused Therapy, and IFS, Internal Family Systems), trauma research, neuroscience, indigineous wisdom, our understanding of spiritual bypassing, feminism, epigenetics, the demand for racial justice, a greater acceptance of vulnerability (thank you, thank you, Brene Brown), the Me Too movement, and of course, the poets – the artists of all flavors and expressions.
As poet Robert Frost wrote, ‘the only way out is through.’ And it is through the path of gently opening our defenses and opening to our vulnerability that we find the treasures underneath.
For under our culture’s defenses against emotion lie so many tender and needed feelings, the collected pool of our inheld sorrow and uncried tears. As playwright and activist Eve Ensler wrote, “Bullets are uncried tears.”
And as so many beautiful teachers have said, it is through the cracked heart, through touching our wounds and sadness, through feeling that we re-member the belonging that holds the whole of our lives in her hands. Through our wounds our hearts bloom into compassion, for ourselves and others.
No action is ‘unemotional’
Understanding how our culture relates to emotion is important for two reasons when we’re talking about trauma and food compulsions.
First, we’re human beings – feeling, sensing, perceiving creatures, with hearts of exquisite sensitivity and subtlety – and so no action is “non emotional.” On some level, we’re all emotional eaters, because we’re moved by our hearts, instincts, impulses and deeper emotions. This inclination is not a defect or disorder, but a beautiful part of our humanity, sensitivity, tenderness, and vulnerability.
Where “emotional eating” becomes problematic is when it becomes compulsive, stuck, inflexible, or leads to negative consequences and suffering – health problems, emotional pain, addiction, and more. This is important. Often, the images or pictures we carry in our minds about ‘what healing from overeating looks like’ are images of never being emotionally moved to eat, ever again. In my experience, the healing journey doesn’t look like that. It’s more like an ebb and flow, like ocean currents, a living, changing, moving relationship with our bodies and their physical and emotional needs.
Second, our culture’s understanding of and comfort with emotion also impacts the healing process itself. Healing from trauma includes the unfreezing of so many things that have been frozen in the body – sensations, thoughts, feelings, energy. This is feeling, and feeling powerful energies and emotions!
If we live in cultures that value control over flow, then this flow can feel like a threatening or negative thing. We may feel ashamed of the emotional dysregulation that lives in our bodies and nervous systems and try to manage it on our own. (Overeating is often an attempt to do just that.)
Instead, we need support to feel more, not less. We need safe spaces to unload and unfold. And we need warm arms to hold us when the tears flow, the rage erupts, and the fear unfreezes so that these emotions don’t have to come out in food, but in the ocean of love that can hold them.
Supporting the grieving process
With trauma, there are often feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and powerlessness. Paradoxically, eating can be a response, a way to soothe the pain of powerlessness and also as a way to effect change, to express power and agency.
Emotional wounds, loss and trauma can heal – but they need to be brought to the light of day. The pain of emotional loss needs to move – to be felt, honored, grieved, and seen so new life can emerge. In my experience, in many ways, the healing process is a grieving process – feeling, honoring, and integrating these emotional losses.
Healing trauma brings greater resources to the nervous system and drains the frozen energy and overarousal, bringing the nervous system to rest and greater regulation. With this rest, the food compulsion – either the pursuit of food or the obsession with controlling it – can unwind.
Powerlessness transforms into a feeling of power and agency.
But this healing has her own timing, her own wisdom, and her own guidance. We’re partners of this healing, not the doers of it. (I talk about the gift of embracing this timing here. Look about halfway down the page, where I talk about the time it takes to heal.)
Healing is possible
Healing trauma can offer tremendous relief, ease the dysregulation and anxiety in the body, and create room for new pathways to arise – new ways of relating to the urge to binge, restrict, or overeat.
And there is hope. Our emotional and physical bodies are designed to heal, and are always doing all they can to heal and support us. If you recognize that you have an emotional bond with food, this bond can be grieved, let go, and outgrown. In the wake of this grieving process, new life arises – hope, empowerment, and new ways of seeing food and the self.
One key, I’ve found, is to honor the place the food has for you, to honor its role as a primary attachment and how it’s cared for your emotional needs.
Through the grieving and healing process, we gently, step by step, as slowly and as steadily as we need to, come to replace food’s soothing power with other, more satiating sources of relational and emotional nourishment.
We come to build a harbor within ourselves, and for ourselves.
We may feel enough safety to begin to seek connection with others, and with our communities, where food isn’t our sole source of outside support.
We may feel enough safety to express authentic need, to ask for and to receive help.
We may come to see our vulnerabilities, challenges and developmental ‘holes’ (those places where we feel underdeveloped) as something we can steward and care for, not something that says something shameful about us.
And we may feel the rupture with Love itself begin to repair (one of the most painful ruptures of trauma is how we can feel separate from the very Love and life that cradles us.) We may sink into the arms that hold us.
How we can – and can’t – help if you need trauma support
One of the hardest – but most important – limits for us here at Growing Humankindness is that, while we’re here to support you in your journey, we’re not trained mental health professionals. And while we’re trauma aware, we’re not trauma trained.
We also don’t offer 1 on 1 coaching.
These two things mean that we have ethical and energetic limits on ways we can and can’t support you. So while our courses, newsletter, books, and group classes can be a source of support, they aren’t a substitute for trauma help or therapeutic support.
If you need help for trauma, we strongly suggest working with a licensed therapist or healer who’s trained in trauma to give you the support you need.
Our courses can provide understanding, support, insight, and tools. But they’re not designed to heal trauma. You may need more support to go deeper into those places, especially if taking a class brings up trauma for you.
We’ve seen so many conscientious, intentional, earnest, sincere people work so hard on themselves, trying to facilitate their healing without ‘success.’ When our attempts fail, it’s easy and natural to blame ourselves. But this isn’t what’s going on at all: we may simply need more or a different kind of support.
Many people find that pairing therapeutic support (working with a therapist) with a book, study group, or group class (whether with us, or someone else) to be a powerful and grounded combination. And we want this power, ease, and support for you!
Getting more hands on help for trauma
For help in healing eating issues or food compulsions in children, I highly recommend my mentor Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work, and in particular, his course on Making Sense of Anxiety. Also look at the work of Hand in Hand Parenting – they offer ways of connecting with children to help release stress and pent up emotions.
Their writings offer some of the best descriptions I’ve found of how to release stored emotional pain from the body through connected, loving relationship and listening.
Dr. Gabor Mate’s work and his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, beautifully and articulately describes the connection between emotional loss and addiction. And The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk is considered by many to be one of the best guides to healing trauma. (You can find more book recommendations below.)
Finding a trauma therapist
If you’re wanting to find a trauma therapist, here are some helpful approaches for treating trauma. Click on the links to find a therapist in your area who’s been trained in these modalities and who can offer you 1 on 1 support.
- Somatic Experiencing
- Kathy Kain’s work, Somatic Practice
- cranial sacral therapy
- IFS, Internal Family Systems
You may also want to look for a therapist who has training in developmental/attachment based approaches. These attachment based approaches include:
- EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy), the work of Dr. Sue Johnson
- Stan Tatkin (PACT training)
- Diane Poole Heller
- Laurence Heller, NARM
- The Neufeld Institute
- Dan Siegel
- Hand in Hand Parenting
- Diana Fosha (AEDP)
- Circle of Security
- IPNB (interpersonal neurobiology)
There are so many fabulous resources for trauma! This list is just a start. You can also find lots of videos and talks on You Tube if you search for these good folks’ names.
- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate
- In an Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine
- Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
- The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- Stephen Porges – the polyvagal theory
- Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller
- Deidre Fay – Becoming Safely Embodied (trauma, attachment theory, and yoga)
- Healing generational trauma – Mark Wolyn
- Irene Lyon – nervous system expert
- Your Resonant Self by Sarah Peyton
- The Heart of Trauma by Bonnie Badenoch
- Matt Licata’s work, including his book A Healing Space
- This is one of the most helpful, practical articles I’ve found to help yourself with the day to day of living with PTSD or trauma, Finding Hope When You Feel Hopeless
We hope that this page helps orient you in understanding how trauma and relational wounds can show up in your relationship with food. We also hope that it gives you some places where you can look for more support, especially as trauma support isn’t something we offer.
Our wish for you is that you may be deeply supported and held by warm, gentle hands as your trauma heals, and that you may re-member the belonging that holds all of you, and all of your experiences.
With warmth, Karly and the Growing Humankindness team