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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I am sad that people state that one get's re-wired permanently when thew science that says otherwise is so readily available. Jill Taylor Bolte's book about her recovery from a full on stroke should have put that to rest. Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity prove that despite age, the brain can be changed. "It wires where it fires" as the adage goes. 

With trauma, and any form of PTSD, the same holds true. Not only is the body an amazing self healer, we can aid it by choosing where our brain is going to fire. Having had developmental trauma, and ostensibly then C-PTSD, and having had diagnosed PTSD from being a firefighter, I can assure you that brain can change quite dramatically. That has been part of the work of leading trauma healers for some time now. 

You don't have to learn to just "manage" symptoms. Trauma is curable, and hence, any thing that follows it. Including bad wiring in the brain.

totally agree - check out the Grief Recovery Handbook, by John W James and Russell Friedman - where they describe food (among a list of many other things) as STERBs - short term energy relieving behaviors.  When we experience trauma, stress, ... grief...  that emotional energy builds up within us.  We feel an innate need to ease that energy and so - we turn to some other behavior that will make us feel "better."  the problem is that these "energy relieving behaviors" work... but only short term.  Leading us to need them more often and in larger quantities...  Yes, we might feel better - but only short term.  Other STERBs include tobacco, drugs, alcohol... and even behaviors like shopping, porn, sexual activity, gambling and excessive exercise.  some aren't bad or harmful in themselves, but when they become those health risk behaviors or addictions that lead to further health problems.  The Grief Recovery Method teaches tools to help get to the root of the grief which leads us to engage in those STERBS in the face of trauma, stress and grief.  For more information go to www.griefrecoverymethod.com.  The program is now evidence-based in its ability to reduce the use of STERBS.  

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