Did you know that women who have experienced trauma, or who have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can gain weight rapidly? And that overall, women with PTSD are more likely to be overweight than women without the disorder?
Recent research done by Columbia University’s School of Public Health and Harvard’s School of Public Health have confirmed what has always been obvious to any of us working in the healing professions: trauma has a profound affect on the health of the physical body. In terms of health and weight, I believe that trauma and PTSD are largely overlooked and even dismissed by much of Western medicine.
For years I have personally seen the connection, as the nature of my practice expands far beyond the scope of nutrition. Much of the spiritual healing work and shamanic journeying I do with clients involves uncovering deep trauma both known and unknown. And just in my own experience a fairly high percentage of women who have experienced trauma or abuse of some kind have suffered with either weight excess, or eating disorders.
The interesting realization is that the woman may or may not be aware of the trauma or that she may be suffering with PTSD. PTSD can begin with a violent episode in childhood, a bullying at school, and countless other things throughout life. But did you also know that neglect as a baby and/or child can cause trauma that lasts a lifetime? Have you heard of parents who let their babies “cry-it-out”? These parents are setting their children up for a lifetime of trauma related health issues (both mental and physical). Crying-it-out is a form of trauma and abuse which remains in the body.
When we are babies, our first “defense” mechanism if you will is our social engagement system. When we cry, our caregivers are supposed to be immediately responsive and so we become soothed by the care they give us. We are DESIGNED to cry as babies for a very good reason. If parents do not respond, or yours did not, you become distrustful that your needs will be met.
Beyond the social engagement system we have the secondary defense mechanism of fight or flight. This is where we fight or run on our own willpower. The bodies stress response helps us “move” and do something. But if we are for some reason unable to move (fight or flee), we then move into a “passive” defense”. We freeze or we faint. This is the precise point where trauma solidifies into the body.
Of course being an infant who is abandoned by not getting our needs met is only ONE example of trauma. There are far more instances of trauma we can experience in childhood, and all throughout adulthood.
Trauma and PTSD lead to weight gain through the over-activation of stress hormones. Trauma disturbs the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. Both of those systems are involved in regulating metabolism. The trauma-weight gain connection is commonly associated with high amounts of cortisol in the body. But on the more subtle unconscious psychological level, weight can mean many different things. I work with many women for whom weight is an actual physical barrier to unwanted sexual attention, or providing a feeling that with the added weight they are less vulnerable to physical or emotional attacks.
Clearly no amount of food planning, dieting and exercising, or readjusting fats carbs and proteins will heal the internal mechanisms that are responding to the trauma. Remember, your body has a constant drive 24/7 to do one thing: survive. And trauma affects you at such a deep and cellular level, as well as an energetic level, that no matter what you do, the body will adapt, overcome, and create new ways to circumvent what you are doing. In other words you are NOT going to outsmart the body.
In fact, if you work so hard with a specific diet and exercise program and add in a few supplements, you may successfully drop the weight. But in time you will develop other health issues that are the new manifestation of your body’s protection mechanisms, such as auto-immune disease or cancer.
Something I work with my clients every day on is the understanding that you cannot ignore trauma and have outstanding health. You cannot pretend it’s not there, you cannot dismiss it as “well, it’s in the past I need to get over it”. Getting over it means healing it, and until it heals, it will be the generative source for illness in the body.
Ultimately it is important to consider if you may in fact be suffering from trauma-related health issues, or even perhaps PTSD. Some of the signs to look out for include:
- Negative feelings about yourself or other people
- Inability to experience positive emotions
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Lack of interest in activities
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
- Always being on guard for danger
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Being easily startled or frightened
Keep in mind this is a limited list. There are many other issues that may be involved or that you may experience. The most important thing you can do to empower yourself and take your health back – both physical and emotional, is to seek help. Work with someone who can help you reach the deep issues related to trauma and who can offer you processes to heal what is going on, and then from there you can work on a nutrition program that can fully heal your body.