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Trauma and Food

Those of you who have suffered trauma in childhood may find yourself having problems regulating your food intake. Psychology used to lump together all trauma, but now distinguishes between what is called Big T trauma and Small t trauma. The former includes rape, sexual/physical abuse and continual/excessive emotional abuse, severe neglect, living through war, and major catastrophe striking at a young age. Being badly injured in childhood, losing your family, or having to abandon your home through abrupt dislocation are all examples of Big T trauma. They are the stories that make headlines.

However, Small t trauma can affect you as strongly as (maybe more than) Big T trauma precisely because you probably underestimate its impact. Examples of Small t trauma include frequently living in fear, suffering low level but continual emotional abuse, growing up in a home in which there is drug and/or alcohol abuse or other kinds of destructive or unpredictable acting out, intentional or unintentional parental neglect which leaves you fending for yourself prematurely, or living in a neighborhood with substantial violence. Small t trauma is general ongoing. In fact, you may not even think of it as trauma at all.

When a body is stressed by trauma (Big or Small), it reacts by producing cortisol which generates the flight/fight/freeze response we have when imperiled. Generally after we’re frightened, our cortisol level decreases through surges of brain chemicals which calm us down and return us to a normal emotional state. When these chemicals are overtaxed, however, they can’t do their job and we’re left in a heightened state of anxiety much of the time. Living on edge is the result of your body generating excessive cortisol.

This is where food abuse comes in. We eat because it comforts us or because the nutrients in food (carbohydrates) biochemically combat our anxious state and numb us if we eat enough. We reject food for the sense of control it gives us. We may not even realize that we’re stressed and looking to be put out of our misery.

Take a minute to consider whether you endured trauma as a child. Small t trauma can be difficult to recognize because it may have seemed normal at the time. You might have minimized your suffering because it’s painful to face. Review the list above and assess your general emotional state growing up. Remind yourself that abusing food to make yourself feel better was your way of coping and then forgive yourself for doing the best you could. If any kind of trauma occurred, make a plan to get effective help now.

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