One Frustrating Side-Effect of Trauma Is Weight Gain

Studies show women who’ve had traumatic events in the last 5 years were much more likely to be obese.

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A 2017 study presented to The American Heart Association found that women who’ve suffered at least one traumatic event were 11% more likely to be obese, and women with numerous traumatic events in the last five years were 36% more likely to be obese.  

This weight gain can be so frustrating, because not only are you in a state of fight or flight, now you have to worry about changing clothing sizes, not feeling your best physically, and not feeling comfortable with your looks.  Your physical appearance may even be the subject of ridicule in a toxic relationship, leading to further trauma.  (Let’s not even talk about how society treats you.)

Why the Body Holds On to Weight During Trauma

There can be many subconscious reasons for the body to hold on to weight during times of trauma, including:

  • As a protection against unwanted physical attention
  • As a way to get desired attention, or help
  • As a sort of insulation from emotional attacks

But, weight can also be the result of increased cortisol, which causes inflammation in the body and sends a signal to the amygdala (our reptilian brain) that our body is in danger and to shut down all systems that are not required for immediate survival.  Metabolism slows for fat storage, which may be needed for fuel in emergencies.  Your body cannot tell the difference between immediate concerns, and chronic daily stress, so long term stress can wreak havoc with your weight.  

What Can You Do To Fight Weight Gain Caused By Trauma?

First, you have to signal to your body that you are safe.  How?  By reducing as much stress as possible.  That’s hard to do if you are living in a home with a toxic relationship, or working in a job with a toxic environment.  But there are some things you can do to mitigate the stress.

  • Prioritize sleep, making sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night
  • Take a walk outside in nature – Just 20 minutes can significantly reduce stress
  • Join a community – people with social support have lower levels of stress
  • Find time to sit in silence/meditate
  • Find an expert in CPTSD or PTSD to help you work through the trauma – it’s important to find someone with experience in the area of childhood trauma, or traumatic relationships, as someone without this experience can cause more harm than good
  • Examine relationships – Reduce time with or cut contact with people that are not supportive, or who cause further trauma

Next, become aware of your emotions.  People who have experienced trauma, begin to close off their emotions because they are too painful.  That strategy may have saved your life as a child, because it helped you stay connected to a caregiver.  However, now you are an adult, and can choose to live in an environment with healthy people that stand by you no matter how you are feeling.  Explore your emotions with journaling, a coach or therapist, or a 12-Step type support group.  

Finally, set boundaries with yourself and others.  No longer allow yourself or anyone else to speak to you with negative trash-talk.  Shut down thoughts that are not helpful in reaching your future goals and ideals of who you want to be.  Only allow things in your life that further your growth as the loving, kind, human you aspire to be.  

What Role Does Diet Play?

Notice, none of these things mention diet.  You already know all of those things, and if they worked, you would not need to read this article.  Yes, food is important, but far more important is how you treat yourself, and how you allow others to treat you.  

Diets teach deprivation and willpower, which is in short supply when you are going through trauma.  A diet with strict calorie counting, or food elimination, can actually add to the level of stress you are experiencing, causing even higher levels of cortisol to course through your body, making you hold on to more weight.  

Once you reduce stress and trauma, by focusing on loving yourself more, it will be easier to eat the foods that nourish you.  When you’re ready, you can practice adding in healthy foods, instead of following strict fad diets, and falling prey to diet culture.

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