Have you been riding the yo-yo diet roller coaster for years?
Are you waiting for that one diet or exercise program that will finally be your magic bullet?
Do you feel like a failure, again and again and again?
As a psychotherapist, I’ve seen many people struggle with compulsive overeating and obesity. Contrary to what it seems on the surface, their challenges often stem from deeper issues that have nothing to do with finding the right diet or exercise. For example:
Maria tried to lose the same sixty pounds for years. Each new diet fad offered new hope. Some worked—for a while. But emotional eating ultimately stopped her progress. The weight would return, leaving Maria feeling like a failure yet again. When she finally sought counseling for lifelong depression that resulted from being sexually abused as a child—she could begin to take charge of her life and her weight.
Richard wanted to be thinner but whenever he started to lose weight, he began to feel nervous. He didn’t notice the connection between his mood and weight until he began having recurring dreams of being attacked. These dreams reawakened memories of childhood when he was bullied by classmates and beaten by his father. Richard recalled gaining weight during middle school and wondered if “being bigger helped me feel safer.”
Sheila began gaining weight after she quit smoking cigarettes. Her pack-a-day habit had curbed her appetite and soothed her stress. Once she quit, however, cookies, chips and candy replaced cigarettes as her loyal friends. Sheila didn’t realize that the real reason she couldn’t lose weight wasn’t about food. It was about the anxiety and panic that had begun when she lost her mother at the age of nine.
How Healing Allows the Weight to Release
Releasing weight permanently and ending emotional eating starts with getting to the root of the problem. And most often that root is inner pain. Once that pain is acknowledged and healed, emotional freedom and a thinner body are possible.
Maria needed to heal from the trauma of sexual abuse and fears about being sexually vulnerable. Only then could she begin to feel safe in a thinner body.
Robert found freedom and inner strength by resolving the trauma of being bullied as a child and physically abused by his father.
Sheila released the weight after finally talking about and grieving the death of her mother and healing from the trauma of her father’s alcoholic rages.
For each of them, carrying extra weight was the symptom. To succeed with releasing the weight permanently—they needed to get to the root cause.
I want to help you get to the root cause, too.
You may be thinking, “Ugh—this is too painful and too much work. Plus, I don’t know if I buy it. Why should I revisit my childhood to lose weight? I just need to find the right diet program.”
I understand. It’s not easy to address painful issues from the past. And maybe early trauma wasn’t a part of your life. But if it was… please hear me out.
Many people think that what happened years or decades ago, doesn’t affect them today. The thing is: feelings are timeless. This means that until you address those issues, the resulting negative beliefs and painful emotions continue to live inside you and often prevent you from living your best life.
And reaching your ideal weight.
Making the Connection
A pioneer in making this connection between childhood adversity and obesity—and other chronic health issues—is Dr. Vincent Felitti. In 1985 Dr. Felitti directed the obesity clinic at Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in California. He became puzzled when nearly 50 percent of his clients dropped out of the program, even after they began losing weight. Dr. Felitti wanted to know why.
After reviewing their histories, he discovered that many of these clients had experienced painful and traumatic childhoods, such as abuse and neglect. In particular, the majority of those who left the program had experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Dr. Felitti came to understand that weight gain and compulsive eating were solutions to a deeper problem. Carrying extra weight helped people feel safe. Emotional eating soothed feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and sadness. To let go of the weight and stop overeating, success required addressing the underlying fear and pain.
If this resonates with you, here’s what I’d like you to do:
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) quiz.
Dr. Felitti developed this questionnaire to help him understand his own patients. It was then used in a larger study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The results of the study confirmed the link between childhood trauma and chronic physical and mental health issues in adulthood, including obesity.
This 10-item questionnaire can help shine light on the root cause of why you’re having a hard time losing weight and why you may struggle with other chronic illnesses. Take the ACE quiz here and learn what your score may mean.
If your ACE score is high, please do not be discouraged. The ACE quiz doesn’t take into account positive experiences and support you may have received at the time. As many people have done, you can overcome childhood adversity and trauma. The quiz gives you insight as to why releasing weight and emotional eating have been hard for you to overcome.
After you take the ACE test and learn your score, here are some more suggestions:
- Read Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal, by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. I’ve recommended this insightful and informative book to many of my clients all of whom found it helped them understand the impact of trauma on their health and weight.
- Learn new ways to cope with your feelings instead of relying on food. One of my favorite books is 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, by Dr. Susan Albers. A great practical go-to resource.
- Consider psychotherapy to deal with the pain from your past and its impact on your weight, health and self-care habits. It’s hard to go this road alone so give yourself the gift of professional support. You can use this therapist finder tool at Psychology Today to help you find a therapist in the United States and Canada. If you have been in psychotherapy in the past… is it time for a tune-up?
- If you use food to cope with chronic anxiety, depression or panic, you may want to speak with your primary care physician (or psychotherapist if you are in counseling) for a medication consultation. While I don’t believe medication is the only answer, it can help and sometimes with dramatic results. If these conditions are not treated, releasing weight and ending emotional eating may be much harder for you.*
Listen, it’s not your fault if you’ve been riding that yo-yo diet roller coaster forever. You do not lack willpower and you are not a failure.
When you address the emotional effects of the adversity you experienced, you build a strong inner foundation that helps you use those weight-loss strategies and plans in a much more effective way and makes your success possible. There are no instant solutions and rapid fixes, but things will get better and you can lose weight by giving the pain in your heart the loving attention it needs.
(*Please don’t let a stigma around medication stop you from exploring this. When someone is diabetic, should they be ashamed for taking insulin? Of course not. Sometimes our bodies need outside help so our physiology can be “reset” to function in a more optimal way. Anything that helps you reduce crippling anxiety, panic and depression will help you take better care yourself, overcome emotional eating and lose weight more easily.)
What do you need to heal from your past to help you release weight?