Chronic Stress, Trauma and Weight Gain

June 8, 2017

Vanessa Leveille

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We live in an incredible time in which we have access to an abundance of information on stress and trauma, and its impact on our lives. Over the years, we have learned how chronic stress, and trauma, affect our mental health, however, little is discussed on the impact it has on physical body, particularly in the area of weight gain. In fact, many still do not understand the correlation between chronic stress and trauma and weight gain.

Chronic stress is stress that has persisted over time and gone under managed. In today’s culture, we strangely celebrate stress. Think about it, the last time you asked someone how they were doing, they likely touched on how stressed they were. In fact, we often talk about stress as if it is a badge of honor; the intensity of stress somehow makes us appear more accomplished. While some stress is good in lending to the adrenaline and boost needed during an important performance, excessive and frequent stress can have damaging effects on our mental health and body. This is the kind of stress that can be felt as aches in the body when you lay down after a long day, or when you mindlessly retreat to your third bowl of double fudge ice cream while watching television. Continuous stress in this manner, especially ignored or under managed, has been proven to contribute to weight gain. Research has shown that stress can contribute to the development of some major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity (1). The unhealthy management of chronic stress, such as the behavior of overeating, has been linked to the growing obesity in our country, and still we don’t do a good job of discussing ways to manage stress (2).

Chronic stress is not something we readily liken with trauma, and don’t do so understandably because we think that “trauma” can only be defined as something tragic or so extreme in intensity that it is life threatening. According to the American Psychiatry Association, trauma is defined as the witnessing or experiencing of an event or events that are distressing it threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and which involved fear, helplessness, or horror. While this does capture trauma, it does not leave room for further interpretation for those who have experienced repeated negative life events (such as losing a job, being homeless, repeated discord with family members, etc) and having had an adverse experience in childhood (sexual abuse, loss of a parent, emotional neglect). Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account that any event that has been deeply disturbing or distressing can be categorized as traumatic, in spite of its threat, intensity or harm. Chronic stress from negative life events, adverse childhood experiences and life experiences can be labeled as traumatic, particularly if you (the experiencer… I do not use “victim”, it isn’t empowering) defines it as such.

So what does all of this have to do with weight gain? We’ve already touched on how the mismanagement or under management of stress, and unaddressed trauma, has been associated with obesity. Medical News Today, reported that in one study, women who had experienced trauma were 36 times more likely to be obese (3). When we as children have gone through a distressing event, we look to our caregivers for soothing. If our caregivers, for one reason or another, are not able to meet our emotional needs we learn to find other ways to self soothe, and food can become an object of self soothe. As adults, who have gone through a childhood experience like this, and continue to experience negative life events, we can continue to turn to food to self soothe. Our bodies, when checked out and not in connection with our minds, cannot tell the difference between being fed out of hunger or being fed from a place of needing soothing. Therefore, every time we are triggered, our brain and body has been programmed to eat, and we reach for food to supply us with comfort and calmness. This mindless eating can lead to overeating and thus weight gain.

Overeating is a behavior, for many, that was developed as a response to the nervous system signaling discomfort and distress. It is important that if this is recognized as a self soothing technique that the individual experiencing this delve into a healing or weight loss program that deals with the underlying issues (trauma) while incorporating behavior modification. It is crucial to deal with the weight underneath the weight, and shift the pain from the body. In later submissions, I will discuss how these traumas from chronic stress, negative life events and adverse childhood experiences can get lodged in the body and stuck, thus creating the pain body. For now, it is important to make the connection that unaddressed and under managed trauma and chronic stress can lead to weight gain.

My 1:1 Coaching Program, “Holistically Me”, is designed to discuss these experiences in more detail and help you to uncover the emotional weight that is hidden underneath the weight that you are having difficulty releasing. This program is more than a weight loss program as what you discover underneath can be so profound that you find the life you have always wanted. To learn more or sign up, click here.

1) Ibid.
2) Dallman, M. et al. (2003). “Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of ‘comfort food.'” PNAS, Vol. 100, pp. 11696-11701

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Chronic Stress, Trauma and Weight Gain

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