Can complex trauma impact eating? Yes.
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
As you know, nutrition and eating challenges can be very confusing. Many bright, accomplished, capable, and thoughtful people I've worked with have noted how well they can navigate certain aspects of life, but wonder why this doesn''t translate to their eating habits.
Many in this situation wonder, "Why can't I get this figured out?"
There are many lenses in which we can understand what contributes to unwanted eating habits, most of which I work with and write about. Today, we're looking at eating challenges through the lens of complex trauma.
Complex trauma, according to Dr. Arielle Schwartz, is a response to traumatic events that were ongoing or repeated, most often in childhood (without the support of a safe adult)
Many people think of trauma as physical or sexual abuse (which it certainly is). But trauma can also result from emotional neglect or abandonment. This is when a caregiver fails to respond to child's emotional needs.
For example, a child might be upset, afraid, or overwhelmed and try to go to their parent. The parent might ignore, minimize,
or invalidate the child's feelings and emotions (whether intentionally or not) leaving the child's own unequipped personality system to "figure out" what to do with their emotional pain on their own.
When this is a recurring experience, the child may grow into an adult and do the same thing to themselves: ignoring, minimizing, or invalidating their own feelings, emotions, and intuitions. They may even feel shame or inner conflict for even having emotions, feelings, and needs in the first place and struggle with a sense of loneliness or shaky sense of self.
Where Does Eating Come into the Picture?
Feelings and emotions don't simply go away if we ignore them. Some people learn to keep them at bay by over-functioning or striving. This might look like controlling and managing eating in an effort to change the body and stay ahead of painful emotions.
When a toxic belief like, "who I am is not okay," "there's something wrong with me," or "I'm not lovable as I am" is internalized when we are young, changing the body and eating can become an imagined place for protection. A woman might feel, "As long as I'm X pounds, I'm okay," or "As long as I exercise X days a week and eat X type of food, I know I am good." When diet and the body are given the massive job of warding off emotions like shame, eating gets significantly more complicated. Understandably so!
Getting too Close to Pain
And there are certain cases where the strategy of controlling the body and eating falls short.
I'll give you an example:
Imagine Shana has been feeling on top of her eating, follow the eating guidelines she's set for herself. She heads to work and finds an email in her inbox with a complaint about her performance on a project from one of her co-workers. Rattled, she pokes her head into another colleagues office seeking some empathy and her colleague tells her she's overreacting. Shana, returns to her office, with a heat welling up in her chest and a low-level sense of panic. She feels "off" and anxious the rest of the day. She gets home from work and instead of having the meal she'd planned for, she has take-out Chinese food delivered to her home and essentially binges on it, along with some leftover banana bread in the house.
This isn't just some simple story about how how one woman reacts to bad news, but an example of what might happen when a woman feels emotional pain and cannot validate, be with it, or soothe it.
The big picture point I'm trying to make is, underneath all unwanted eating habits or neurosis around food, you'll find legitimate pain or suffering. Eating challenges are part of the dance, and distraction, that surround it.
Going to food makes sense. Denying food makes sense. Food is the Great Soother and Great Mother, whether we see the metaphor or not, and we can often live out our ambivalence toward emotions and the need for love, soothing, and belonging through a conflicted relationship with food.