255 Hope Street, Providence, Rhode Island

Sexual Abuse

You were sexually abused as a child.
Now you’re an adult and
Have trouble releasing weight.
You’re not alone.

Meet Bethany

As a single 46-year-old, Bethany desperately wanted to be thinner and shed 60 pounds. But whenever she began to make positive lifestyle changes and lose weight, she sabotaged herself.

Each time the pounds began to drop, instead of feeling encouraged and continuing to eat well, Bethany stopped taking time to prepare healthy meals and reverted back to fast food. While she had enjoyed her new habit of daily walks in the park, she began feeling too tired to continue. Anxiety and panic—for no apparent cause—triggered binge-eating episodes.

When I first met Bethany, the weight in her heart revealed itself in her drooped shoulders and sad eyes. She had never been in therapy before and seemed both relieved—and scared—to share her life story with someone.

Bethany told me that her stepfather sexually abused her for several years during her childhood. The abuse stopped when he met another woman and left the family.

She said her stepfather often told her, “You’re prettier than your mother” and believed the abuse was her fault. Bethany never told anyone, including her mother, because, “I didn’t want her to be mad at me and think I was dating her husband.” As she shared her story, I saw in Bethany’s eyes the heaviness of guilt and pain she carried inside.

Numbing Out with Food

Like every abused child, Bethany couldn’t escape from what was happening to her several times each week. She numbed her fear and loneliness with candy bars and cookies, often hoarding them in her bedroom. Eating became a way to block her feelings and stop thinking about the inevitable. Bethany began to gain weight as she entered adolescence and struggled with this and body insecurity into and through adulthood.

Over the course of our work together, Bethany began to see the connection between her traumatic childhood and struggles with weight and overeating. She found forgiveness for the little girl she once was and began to understand why she felt anxious whenever the pounds started dropping off:

“I felt so guilty for what my stepfather was doing. I didn’t see that he was at fault. I thought I was the one betraying my mother. Now I see why I couldn’t lose weight. I couldn’t tolerate seeing myself as attractive. The guilt was too overwhelming.”

It took time, but as Bethany released the pain from her heart, she began to release the weight from her body. She learned healthier ways to acknowledge and release her feelings—journaling, writing poetry, talking with her support group—instead of numbing herself with food. Yoga classes helped her emotionally embrace and befriend her body. Practicing breathing exercises and tapping acupressure points allowed her to feel calm and grounded when anxiety and guilt surfaced—and better cope with emotional eating triggers. She resumed her soul-nourishing daily walks in the park.

Bethany stopped turning to food for comfort as she learned how to comfort herself. She began to release the pounds from her body as she released guilt and shame from her heart. Setbacks still happened but were short-lived. Instead of punishing herself when they occurred, she learned from them. With patience, perseverance and self-forgiveness, Bethany ultimately reached a healthy weight and found inner peace in the process.

Where It Began

You won’t hear childhood sexual abuse discussed in many traditional weight loss approaches, yet there is a high correlation between early sexual trauma, obesity, emotional eating and body image concerns.

As many as one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18—from indecent exposure to more invasive forms of sexual assault. If you were sexually abused as a child and experience difficulty releasing weight, chances are your ongoing weight loss difficulties stem from this past trauma.

Here’s why: When something triggers the old, painful feelings that still linger inside, it’s very easy to end up emotionally eating. And your subconscious mind, wanting to protect the little girl or boy you once were, may block your efforts to let go of the emotional protection your extra weight provides.

I imagine you’ve tried every possible diet, counted every calorie and purchased every video to lose weight… and none of that has worked. If your attempts at losing weight have been fraught with repeated disappointments, I want to assure you that you are not a failure and you do not lack willpower.

Most Likely, Somewhere Deep Inside, You Are Simply Afraid.

You may be wondering who I am and why I’m so passionate about this topic…

I’m a psychotherapist, life coach and Reiki healer. Earlier in my career I specialized in psychological trauma. I developed the first child sexual abuse treatment program in the state of Rhode Island and was an expert witness in the family and superior courts on child and adult sexual assault cases. During this time I worked with many adults who were sexually abused and also had difficulty releasing weight. It was then I learned the connection between sexual trauma and emotional eating, body image, gaining weight for protection and unconscious fears about being thin.

While I work with only a limited number of individual clients these days, my intention is to build a supportive community for women who have been sexually abused as children and now struggle with weight and body image issues.

Of the many weight loss programs and diet plans available, I’m unaware of any that address underlying sexual abuse. To bridge that gap, I’ve created this page and the resources listed below. My intention is to help you discover if this connection applies to you—so you can break free from the bonds of your past.

Once you do so, you’re well on your way to creating a respectful and loving relationship with your body and ultimately releasing those extra pounds… forever.

Making The Connection

Here are some ways your past history of sexual abuse can get in the way of weight loss efforts today:

  • You may equate being thin with receiving unwanted sexual advances and feel vulnerable to sexual assault. These fears may be conscious or hidden in your subconscious mind. As you release the pounds and become thinner, these fears surface. You may feel anxiety or experience panic attacks and not know why.
  • You may feel uncomfortable being noticed, even in a positive way. After years of protecting yourself behind extra weight, as you become thinner you may feel uneasy or self-conscious receiving compliments.
  • Because food, in fact, helped you cope, you may experience a sense of loss or fear at the thought of no longer eating certain foods that may have felt like your friends.
  • You probably spent years detaching from your body to cope with the sexual abuse. This can make it hard to create a loving connection with your body today. Dissociation is a defense mechanism often used by sexual assault survivors. They psychologically remove themselves from their bodies during the abuse and “watch” what’s happening from above. If you can relate, understand that this helped you survive. But you’re safe now and can learn to reclaim the right to a positive relationship with your body today.
  • Underlying trauma-related feelings such as fear, anger, helplessness, betrayal, shame and guilt may trigger emotional binge eating. A stress in your life today—that you probably can easily deal with—may feel overwhelming because it brings to the surface those old feelings, causing an overreaction. Once those old feelings and pain are released from your mind and body, handling life stress becomes easier because you stop bringing the past into conflicts today.

Using food to numb your feelings and gaining extra weight were ways you tried to protect yourself. While a problem in your life today, it all started as a solution to a problem: Food helped you deal with painful feelings and gaining weight helped you feel emotionally safe.

You were just trying to take care of yourself in the only ways you knew. Be gentle with yourself, okay? You did the best you could.

Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

Much Love,




Would You Like To Explore This Topic Further?

Receive your free gift: Shed Your Pounds of Protection: 7 Powerful Weight-Loss Tools for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Enter your name and email address at the top of the right column (or at the bottom of this page) to receive this free ebook and my popular newsletter, Living Lightly, which is full of spiritual insights and helpful tips for your weight release journey.

Join Me On Facebook

Private Facebook Group

Connect with like-minded women who also were sexually abused and struggle with their weight by joining my private Facebook group, Living Lightly Together.

Because this is a private Facebook group hidden from the public, women are more willing to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences than on an open Facebook page. Here’s what members are saying about the Living Lightly Together group:

I love the freedom this group has given me to look deep inside myself for truly the first time in my life, so that I can learn to recognize the effects childhood trauma has had on me. Before this group, before Diane’s insights, and before I heard from others, I didn’t really understand the cause and effects. Just recognizing it for what it is is truly freeing. A true gift!

I am very glad to have found Living Lightly Together. I’ve always suspected my weight and eating went back to childhood abuse and it’s really comforting to have the support of other women who completely understand.

The women in this group are loving and supportive. There is no judgment, only encouragement and advice. So many of us have used weight as a shield to prevent further assault and this group has a way of helping me express what I feel. It has helped me a great deal. This group has truly been a Godsend.

I love this group because everyone is so supportive and kind that it creates a truly safe space to share about this difficult subject matter. I wish another group I joined felt more like this one, where we support each other while respecting each other’s choices and process, recognizing that we are all different and only we can decide what’s right for ourselves. In other words, this group does exactly what it’s meant to do. Thank you, Diane, for creating it.

This is a safe place to come and discuss my fears and get support from people who have been down the same path. It’s a reminder to me that I’m not alone. That’s brought me significant comfort and has helped me let go of years of shame.

I have found support in this group and personally from Diane when I have reached out seeking direction or understanding. The members have all walked a similar journey so have compassion and understanding without judgment. The group provides a safe environment for me and others to openly talk about our issues and helps us regain the control needed in managing our weight and life.

Email me at diane@dianepetrella.com for information about how to join this free, members-only virtual support group.

Living Lightly Facebook Page 

My general Facebook page offers a mind/body/spirit approach to health, releasing weight and tips for your self-growth and spiritual development.

Remember to “Like” the page so you’re sure to receive these inspiring messages.





As you develop a trusting and loving partnership with your body, use these five promises as your stepping stones. Wishing you good health and happiness.




Why I (often) use the phrase, “release weight” rather than “lose weight”

The terms “weight loss” and “losing weight” long have been associated with shedding those extra pounds. Because people search for information using these terms, I often use them, too.

But I’d like you to consider another way to think about letting go of your extra weight.

Words are powerful beyond measure. The meaning and intention of each word emits energy. This energy is on a continuum: From a high energetic vibration that uplifts you to a low energetic vibration that drains you… and everything in between.

When I work with clients, I’m vigilant about the words they use. I teach them to change their energy—and their perspective—simply by using higher vibration words.

So when it comes to creating your slimmer body, think about this:

“LOSS” means “the state or feeling of grief when deprived of someone or something of value.” That definition doesn’t make you very happy, does it?

“RELEASE” means “allow (something) to move, act, or flow freely.” Sounds more uplifting, right?

The thing is, emotional eating and long-term weight issues are symptoms of something deeper. It’s not really about food and “losing” the weight. It’s about those painful feelings you’ve been holding in your mind, heart—and energy field—and learned to numb with food. As you allow the pain you’re holding onto to release—little by little—you lighten your heart. As you lighten your heart and no longer use food for comfort, you free yourself to gain confidence and unconditional self-love… and release the extra weight.

Here’s a simple exercise so you can see what I mean.

  • Get quiet. Close your eyes. Take a few breaths to relax.

  • Then, say to yourself three times: “I want to lose weight.”
  • Notice the sensations in your body. 

  • Clear that away and then repeat to yourself: “I want to release weight.”
  • Notice the sensations in your body. 

  • Open your eyes.

What do you notice?

How does your body feel?

Does your spirit feel light or heavy?

Several years ago I posted this exercise to my Facebook page. Here’s what people experienced:

“Saying ‘losing weight’ caused me to tighten up. ‘Release’ was a much softer request allowing me to let go.”

“Freeing and pleasant versus yucky.”

“’Lose weight caused me to feel anxious. Release weight left me feeling calm, determined and optimistic.”

“Lose weight immediately made me feel tight and release weight felt light.”

“It felt like to release something is to own my freedom to really love me and my body. No stress attached to saying release weight.”

You still may decide to say “lose weight” depending on who you’re talking with. But when you talk to yourself or like-minded people, practice using the term “release.”

It just may help lighten your journey.

And your body, too.