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Trauma, Abuse and Obesity

After finally reaching a healthier weight after having obesity for decades, some people have unexpected reactions to their new bodies. While each individual has a unique experience, some people are uncomfortable for various reasons in their “new body” and it actually can lead to some form of self-sabotage and weight regain. What happened? Why isn’t everyone just pleased to have reached a lower weight? Additional understanding may be found in some of the reasons for weight gain in the first place related to the neuroscience of trauma, abuse, and its changes on the brain.

Food for Pleasure

There is a lot of research on what is known as “adverse childhood events” and how they can affect people later in life. The brain has neuroplasticity and is still making connections in the developing human, and relationships with others are what determine these connections. A “secure” connection is developed when there is predictable responses, including positive feedback. When there is a shortage of positive feedback, a person may not develop the connections to feel a “natural high,” and studies show they may be more likely to turn to food to feel pleasure.

Obesity as a Defense Mechanism

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than six million people with obesity are likely to have suffered physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse during their childhoods. Obesity may be seen as a “shield” to make sure that what they went through never happens again. Sometimes, after weight loss, people receive attention with which they are uncomfortable. What is intended as a compliment can lead to unintended consequences.

Exerting Control

Adults may employ binge eating or overeating as a means to control their body if they are in a situation in which they have limited control over other aspects of their life, or to “tune out” other difficult emotions or situations. The excess stress can lead to the release of proinflammatory cytokines, which prevent insulin from being taken up by the muscle cells and can lead to weight gain.

Opening Communication

My goal with this blog is to ensure that each individual is comfortable talking about their individual experience. An awareness of the research on neuroscience and how our experiences can affect our thinking and responses can normalize and provide the physiologic basis for responses that may have been previously unexpected. The good news is that neuroplasticity works both ways, and with acknowledgement of the process, a positive intervention can begin.

Take Back Your Neuroplasticity,

Valerie Hope-Slocum Sutherland, MD

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1 Comment

Steven Shippee
Steven Shippee
Aug 13, 2022

I never thought your statement: "Adults may employ binge eating or overeating as a means to control their body" had to do with control ... interesting point ... I previously thought control was akin to weighing out 4 ounces of protein, etc.

Thanks for the "food for thought", another interesting blog on how we view eating.

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