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Breathe: A Trauma-Informed Tool for Intuitive Eating

For many who’ve experienced childhood or adolescent trauma, food became your emotional life preserver, and it’s understandably hard to let it go.

Perhaps you discovered how food helped you cope with overwhelm and stress when you were 16, 12, nine—or even four years old. Now you’re an adult, and it’s hard to sense when you’re actually hungry. When stress hits, tuning into your body’s needs isn’t what you think about.

You just want relief—fast.

The idea of intuitive eating can feel downright impossible.

Because when you feel stressed and scared, you’re not accessing intuition, you’re accessing survival instincts. That’s your fight/fight/freeze response. In survival mode, impulse overrides thoughtful reflection. Think about it: If you feel in danger you don’t take time to map out the shortest route to safety—you just run.

And sometimes you run to Burger King.

A Relaxed Body = An Intuitive Body 

So can you learn to practice intuitive eating if you have a history of trauma? The answer is yes. And learning to calm your body when stressed will help you make mindful and intuitive—rather than impulsive—choices. Calming your body activates the relaxation response. And it’s the relaxation response that helps you access your intuition and body wisdom.

Think of it this way:

Stress response = survival mode + impulsive reactions = emotional eating.
Relaxation response = intuition + mindful choices = intuitive eating becomes accessible.

When your body is relaxed, you’re not fighting anything. You feel safe. Your body can communicate its deeper needs and you’re more receptive to receive that information.
 Learning to calm your body is one of the foundational pillars for intuitive eating—especially when you’ve experienced early trauma.

A Self-Calming Tool: Four-Square Breathing

Develop the daily habit of giving your body moments of peace and calm. This helps you activate your body’s natural relaxation response. The more you condition yourself and your body to feel relaxed, the more able you will become to calm yourself down when you feel stressed and overwhelmed.

Practice Four-Square Breathing when you’re not stressed to give yourself moments of peace. Then, when you’re feeling stressed, you’ll know what to do.

Use Four-Square breathing while seated or standing, with eyes open or closed. For many trauma survivors, closing the eyes can feel too vulnerable. That’s okay. The calming benefits of Four-Square breathing (actually, for most breathing exercises), are the same with your eyes open or closed. Here’s what you do:

1) Breathe in for four counts.
2) Hold the breath for four counts.
3) Exhale for four counts.
4) Hold the breath for four counts.
5) Repeat the sequence two or three times.

(If four counts feels too long, use three.)

For some trauma survivors, relaxation can feel triggering. That’s because you adapted to early trauma by being hyper-vigilant for danger, so you now feel vulnerable letting your guard down. Regularly practice Four-Square Breathing with your eyes open while you’re in a comfortable and safe space. Over time, your body will learn that it is safe to feel relaxed.

When you’re feeling stressed and tempted to eat something unhealthy, do your best to pause. Then, practice Four-Square Breathing until your body feels more settled. Once settled, go inward and ask your inner wisdom:

“Instead of food, what do I need right now?” 

Notice what you intuitively hear and the thoughts that enter your mind. For example, perhaps you hear to take a five-minute walk, call a friend, rest, or write down your feelings. Whatever your intuition whispered to you, do your best to follow through. If you don’t hear anything, don’t give up. Connecting with your inner wisdom takes practice.

And have patience. When you’re in the grip of intense emotion, switching off the emotional eating impulse is easier said than done, I know. Simply commit to practice Four-Square Breathing regularly and use it whenever you’re stressed. Some days it will feel easy to be kind to your feelings in ways that don’t include food. Other days it will feel impossible.

And that’s okay. 

Remember, this is a practice. And developing new practices take time, patience and perseverance. Above all else, please be gentle with yourself. Healing from emotional eating and accessing intuitive eating skills take time. Hold faith in your heart.

You’ll get there.

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