Trauma. What a loaded word. When we hear the word trauma, some of us may think “car accident,” while others may think “abuse and neglect.” Perhaps, for you, it means the sudden loss of a loved one, seeing a parent or loved one struggle with addiction, or being in a war zone. However, there are also traumas like getting made fun of or feeling rejected by peers; infidelity; prolonged financial stress; or ending a relationship. Some in psychology circles call these types of experiences “little t” (as opposed to “big T”) traumas, the seemingly innocuous, unpleasant drips of childhood and life that most of us go through.
However, depending on your nervous system, beliefs, perceptions, and expectations, these experiences can have a deep and lasting impact on your relationships, your sense of worthiness and lovability, even how you feel about your body.
Trauma and adverse experiences that go unprocessed in the system can affect our relationship with our bodies in many ways, some on a biochemical level (van der Kolk, 2015). When we experience trauma or even prolonged stress, our bodies go into survival mode. Our adrenal glands kick into gear and the body tries to make sure it has enough energy to get through whatever the stressful situation is. This means an increase in our sugar levels (Blood Sugar and Stress, 2017). Prolonged stress can also slow our overall metabolism down. If you have a lot of stress chemicals pumping through your body, your blood sugar levels go up and your metabolism goes down (Rabassa and Dickenson, 2016, p. 73).
At the same time metabolism is going down, many people who have unprocessed trauma may use food as a coping skill to numb out their pain. Most of us do this to some extent. Some of us stay really busy to stay out of our pain, some of us use alcohol or drugs, some of us focus on our kids or other people, and some of us use food. Food has a particularly powerful effect on our nervous system. When our ancestors evolved, chewing and swallowing food literally meant we were not currently being chased by a tiger, that we were safe (Kubo, Iinuma, & Chen, 2015). So not only is metabolism down, but the act of chewing and eating (especially foods high in sugar and fat) soothes the nervous system, leaving some people frustrated with their relationship with food and their bodies.
As a trauma therapist, I have seen a number of other ways trauma affects the body. People who struggle with their body weight and/or with liking or loving their bodies often had role models who spoke negatively about themselves. For example, a person might have heard their mom say repeatedly, “Ugh, I am so fat. I hate my stomach.” As a way of staying attached to the mom, the child begins to hate their own body and the cycle of poor body image continues.
Our bodies are our ultimate teachers. They give us signals about our truth and our emotions, and they are the vessels through which we express love and engage in action in the world.
Another way trauma might affect our relationship with our bodies has to do with protection. If a child was abused by someone much bigger than they are, they might make themselves bigger in adulthood as a way of regaining a sense of power and control. Many people in therapy report, “If I am bigger, no one can hurt me.” It is important to begin to cultivate a sense of compassion for ourselves if we struggle with this. For many, this seems counterintuitive. If I am compassionate toward myself, I am giving myself permission to stay the same. However, compassion is a powerful agent toward creating mindful and sustainable changes if we want to make them.
Dissociation is also a common response to trauma. People report a sense of “floating above their bodies” or “not really being able to feel” their bodies at all. Many times, people feel that their very sense of themselves is only from the neck up, that they exist only in their heads (Siegel, 2007, p.25). I often ask people in therapy, “When you shift your focus from your head to your heart, what do you notice?” Many times, people will start to tap into some grief or sadness that has been literally stuck in their bodies for years (van der Kolk, 2015). Once that sadness and pain can be truly felt and processed, perhaps now with a little more compassion, people report a deep sense of relief and even a sense of feeling more open-hearted.
As difficult as it can be, it is important to develop a healthy and loving relationship toward our bodies, especially if we have experienced trauma (not to mention all the cultural messages we get from our airbrushing friends at the fashion mags—but that’s another article). Our bodies are our ultimate teachers. They give us signals about our truth and our emotions, and they are the vessels through which we express love and engage in action in the world. Our bodies are our ultimate guides toward our truth and often highlight our paths toward healing.
- Blood sugar and stress. (2017). In Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
- Kubo, K., Iinuma, M., & Chen, H. (2015). Mastication as a stress-coping behavior. BioMed Research International, 2015, 876409. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.1155/2015/876409
- Rabassa, C., & Dickenson, S. L. (2016). Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 9, 71-77.
- Siegal, Dan. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W. W. Norton & Company
- van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
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