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Early Trauma and Eating Problems

It’s heartening to see my perceptions from 30 years of working with troubled eaters validated once in a while. This is the case with a recent article in Psychotherapy Networker entitled “As the Twig Is Bent: Understanding the health implications of early life trauma” by Mary Sykes Wylie. The article discusses the correlation between early trauma and health issues, including some related to obesity.

The following conclusions come from research done by Vincent Felitti, founder of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine. “In a study of 286 obese people in the program…Felitti discovered that half had been sexually abused as children—more than 50% higher than the normal rate reported by women and 300% higher than the rate reported by men. In fact, for these people, overeating and obesity weren’t the central problems, but attempted solutions.” This research was followed by a joint study between Kaiser Permanent and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to equally astounding conclusions: “Intuitively, it seems obvious that childhood adversity increases the risk for mental and emotional problems in adult life, [including] more anxiety, panic reactions, poor anger control, sleep disturbances, dissociation, hallucinations, alcoholism, drug addiction, and somatization.” Said another way, early trauma has “a vast and profound influence in the development of biomedical conditions, even half a century after the childhood events occurred. Childhood adversity radically increases the risk for physical illness and disabilities…”

What do these conclusions mean for you? My hope is that those of you who have had highly adverse childhoods and continue to blame yourselves for your health and mental health problems will see that they are not your fault. One aspect of trauma’s legacy is the medical and emotional issues you end up dealing with later in life. Another is the erroneous belief that you are to blame for them. You look around and see other people being happy and reaching their goals, while you feel stuck in your body, your mind and your past. The fact is, we’re not all playing on a level field. You didn’t ask for your health, emotional, eating or weight difficulties—or your childhood—but may be at a disadvantage in the present if you had early abuse or neglect.

The truth is that you may have more problems than the next person and that taking good care of yourself is harder for you than for people who had more functional childhoods. So, now you must strike a balance between recognizing the reality of your history and becoming accountable for your choices to grow healthier and move on.