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Why Emotional Eating Can Be a Consequence of Trauma


Assuming hunger is part of what drives humans to the next meal, it’s easy to accept that a person only eats to achieve a feeling of fullness.

But, in the case of emotional eating or consuming “comfort foods,” there is a school of thought suggesting trauma as the culprit.

The link between emotional eating and trauma can be uncovered in several life circumstances. Namely, a victim engages in emotional eating when triggered by negative emotions directly related to past trauma.

The Inability to Live in the Present Can Influence Eating Habits

Although there are similarities between binge eating and emotional eating, the strongest relationship is that they are both influenced by the lack of connectivity to the present. In essence, this means that trauma victims often eat to escape their negative feelings.

According to Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., the director of traumatic stress studies division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, “People with PTSD have such a hard time focusing on the present and future because they are preoccupied with traumatic memories or trying to avoid traumatic reminders.”

It’s only natural to want to redirect a negative thought back to an area of positivity. But, connecting food to active redirection is the essence of emotional eating.

Trauma Forever Changes how the Brain Functions

Most people entertain negative thoughts about themselves from time to time. It’s not uncommon for those moments of negativity to pass quickly.

But the difference between moments of negativity and a complete cognitive overhaul is so vast that the sphere of influence can no longer be denied.

Those who have experienced past trauma often have a much smaller margin of reprieve. This leaves a significant space for an alternative amnesty—such as food. Many psychologists now recognize that trauma victims interpret physical symptoms, such as pain, differently than others.

Steve Passika, Ph.D., a psychologist and Vice President of Research and Advocacy for Millenium Health said, “I think what we’re starting to appreciate is that when you have traumatic experiences as a young person, it rewires you. And the way in which you interpret physical symptoms is changed forever.”

Trauma Victims Use Food to Assume Control

The notion of a trauma victim dictating extreme control over a certain aspect of life has been widely accepted. This holds true especially in situations surrounding a crime such as rape or violence. Food, in these cases, becomes a game piece in an inner power struggle.

According to Jude Scheel, Ph.D., featured in Psychology Today, “In effect, the individual with the eating disorder assumes roles of both the victim and abuser.”

It’s not uncommon for a trauma victim relying on food to play out the part of the abuser by forcing food down their throat or perpetuate harm to the body. Simultaneously, the victim role is represented in the seemingly helpless body taking the abuse.

Scheel goes on to say, “The individual, therefore, is able to maintain recurrent and intrusive abusive events through the use of the eating disorder while simultaneously enabling herself to dissociate, distract and soothe the pain through the obsession with food.”


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Thanks for sharing the articles. I've found that survivors of childhood trauma who have eating difficulties need both psychodynamic help understanding the patterns and reasons underlying their out of control and some practical strategies to help them change behaviors. For some, the executive functioning is not there for them to translate understanding into behavior without that help.

Definitely feeling this since last year. The state of the world has me feeling as powerless as when I was a kid in foster care in the 80s. All I want to do is eat. I have to argue with myself that the cheeseburger/Popeyes/cake is not going to make me feel as good later as it looks and smells right now. I don't always win that argument, but recognizing where it's coming from helps keep it at bay.

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