What does trauma have to do with food compulsions?
Friends, this page came to be when the topic of trauma came up in a When Food is Your Mother class. 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 to helpful resources, and to clarify the limits of how we at Growing Humankindness 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 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 trauma or emotional loss. Emotional loss can take many forms – trauma, developmental loss, the everyday losses of normal life, addiction, abuse, neglect, alienation, isolation, grief, intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, 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 care for sensations that, in the moment, are overwhelming the body’s coping strategies.
As trauma expert and healer Bonnie Badenoch says, “All behavior is adaptive.”
Sometimes it helps to stop, to pause and feel this statement in the body and how it reverberates in our cells – 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 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 and leading to other problems – also serve a purpose. They 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 – can also be 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. This is one of the themes that we explore in When Food is Your Mother.
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.
The food compulsion is akin to that crack in the earth, bearing witness to what happened.
The healing journey
Healing from trauma includes the unfreezing of so many things that have been frozen in the body – sensations, feelings, responses, and energy.
As Dr. Gabor Mate says in his new film, The Wisdom of Trauma, we need to restore our connection to feeling.
We need safe spaces to unload and unfold. We need to express and feel what is within us. 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.
And in order to feel, our bodies and hearts need to feel safe. This understanding underlies much of our current understanding of trauma, including Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. (Here’s a link to a video from Deb Dana where she gives a basic explanation of polyvagal theory and our need for safety.)
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 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.)
Healing is possible
Healing trauma offers tremendous relief, easing the dysregulation and anxiety in the body, and creating room for new pathways to arise – new ways of relating to the urge to binge, restrict, or overeat.
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.
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 your journey, we’re not trained mental health professionals. And while we’re trauma aware, we’re not trauma trained.
This distinction means that we have ethical and energetic limits on ways we can, and can’t, support you.
Our courses and resources can provide understanding, support, insight, and tools. They can complement other forms of help. But they’re not designed to heal trauma, and they aren’t a replacement for 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. You may need more support than we can give, especially if taking a class brings up trauma for you.
We’ve seen many conscientious, intentional, sincere people work so hard on themselves, trying to facilitate their healing without ‘success.’ When these attempts fail, it’s easy and natural to blame ourselves. But often, this isn’t what’s going on. It may be that we may need a different kind of support.
Many people find that pairing therapeutic support with a book, study group, or group class (whether with us, or someone else) to be a powerful 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. He also has a film, The Wisdom of Trauma.
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.)
And if you want to understand the nervous system’s role in healing from trauma, I recommend this primer on polyvagal theory from therapist and trainer Deb Dana.
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
- Natural Lifemanship – trauma informed, attachment based horse therapy
- Sensorimotor therapy, the work of Pat Ogden
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.
- Deb Dana’s work – a wonderful resource – and her book Anchored
- Deidre Fay – Becoming Safely Embodied (trauma, attachment theory, and yoga)
- Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller
- Healing generational trauma – Mark Wolyn
- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate
- In an Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine
- Irene Lyon – nervous system expert
- Matt Licata’s work and his book A Healing Space
- No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz
- Stephen Porges – the founder of polyvagal theory
- The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- The Heart of Trauma by Bonnie Badenoch
- Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine (and his many other books)
- Your Resonant Self (and the companion workbook) by Sarah Peyton
And this is one of the most helpful, practical articles we’ve found to help yourself with the daily 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.
Karly and the Growing Humankindness team