The Recovery Room: The Hurt We Hide By Overeating

What To Know and Ways To Overcome


By Kathleen Murray, MSW, LCSW

Many people who struggle to manage their weight often become self-critical when they are unable to stick to their eating plan. They accuse themselves of being weak and suspect some "inner saboteur" is operating when they overeat. I'm writing this article to assure those people that they are not alone.

In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti, then chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, was mystified by the fact that many of his most successful patients were unable to maintain their weight loss. Later, through a pioneering study (the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE Study) with a colleague, he found that many of his patients had suffered sexual abuse, along with other toxic stressors in their childhood.

There are many reasons why sexual, physical and emotional abuse can lead to overeating. Here are just a few of them:

Emotional Eating
People learn at an early age to numb out feelings of fear, anger and helplessness by eating. Food is an option that is always available to help us take control of feelings and experience pleasure. It is one thing that we can control when everything else seems to be out of control.

Chronic Stress
Childhood abuse can set up our nervous system to be in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. Substances such as food can help calm us down and soothe our feelings.

Survivors of sexual abuse often have strong inner critics and are overly hard on themselves. This can lead to restrictive dieting and “all-or-nothing” thinking, which triggers even more shame and creates a destructive cycle.

Extra weight can feel like a protection from the world. Sometimes when people lose weight and start attracting attention to themselves, vulnerable feelings arise that can then trigger emotional eating.

Detachment From the Body
People often mentally leave their body to escape abuse. This can be a lifesaving thing to do at the time, but staying disconnected from the body prevents us from sensing our feelings and lovingly taking care of ourselves.

Help for Healing

If any of the reasons for overeating previously listed apply to you, I have some recommendations to help you overcome the pain you may be feeling. These suggestions for change may help you manage your weight as well as lead you toward living a happier, freer life.

  • Practice Mindfulness & Self-Compassion. The most important remedy for shame is to know that the abuse was not your fault. There was nothing that you, as a child, could do about it. Self-compassion does not mean being easy on yourself. It only means recognizing that you need understanding, support and a flexible approach to sustain a lifestyle change.

  • Reframe Your Thinking. See your behavior through a “trauma-informed” lens: Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with me?,” ask, “What happened to me?” In looking through this lens, we can see that our problematic behavior was often our best attempt to manage our stress—and distress—at the time.

  • Work On Stress Management. Practice strategies like deep breathing, meditation, prayer and emotional sharing with other understanding people.

  • Strengthen the Body. Find gentle forms of experiencing strength in your body, like stretching moves, yoga or tai chi. Some people benefit from martial arts self-defense classes, which can help them counter feelings of physical vulnerability.

  • Know Your Triggers. Identify triggers for emotional eating and find other ways to soothe difficult feelings, like taking a warm bath, trying a new hobby, listening to music or playing with a pet.

  • Seek Support. Knowing that you are not alone can reduce shame. Reach out to people who share your experience and make connections with them.

  • Talk With an Expert. Seek professional help, if necessary. Here are some therapies to consider. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses awareness, acceptance and self-compassion to identify thoughts, sensations and feelings that trigger dysfunctional eating patterns. Somatic Experiencing is a body-based therapy that works with the human nervous system to gently release the after effects of trauma, such as the flight, fight or freeze reactions. Both of these therapies help build healthier neural networks in the brain to calm fears and anxieties so that you can make better choices and decisions. You can also consult a therapist who specializes in treating individuals with eating disorders and trauma.

It’s important to know that sustainable weight management is a journey, not a quick trip. There are many other people, who have suffered various forms of abuse and traumatic stress, on their own weight-loss journeys, too. You are not alone.

Kathleen Murray, MSW, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. For more than 20 years, she has worked with clients on issues of weight management, disordered eating and traumatic stress. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is a provider at Duke Health.