Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience in which the person’s ability to deal with the experience is overwhelmed. This can be a one-time experience or a repetitive or enduring condition. Traumatic experiences may include mental, psychological, and physical trauma.
Almost all of us have experienced trauma at one time or another. So experiencing a trauma doesn’t always guarantee that a person will develop an addiction. It appears that the root cause of addictive behaviors such as overeating, binge eating, sugar addiction, and other eating disorders is what happens when we lose our ability to deal with the trauma.
When I was seventeen my mother left and moved across the country to be with a man she had fallen in love with. I was on my own. This left me with intense anxiety, and debilitating fear that I wouldn’t make it on my own. She even told me I would never make it on my own. I felt if my own mother left me, I was obviously not good enough. I turned to food and alcohol and developed an addiction that lasted almost 30 years. I not only got relief when I turned to alcohol and food, I got high off it. I felt good. Even when it caused me to gain weight and I wanted to stop, the compulsion to eat consumed me. I was out of control and although I couldn’t identify it at the time, I was in a total state of chaos and compulsion. I needed to eat, but couldn’t explain why.
Feelings of overwhelm from trauma can be reduced by addictions. In fact, when an addiction is born it can often be an attempt to manage what is perceived as an unmanageable situation. Addictions are actually a positive survival instinct gone awry. The way out of addiction is to recognize the positive intention and learn how to leave it behind. When I realized I was trying to manage the trauma with my mom, I began to manage it by reassuring myself that indeed I could make it on my own. I gradually released my compulsion to eat and drink. The more I healed, the more I forgave, The more I understood that she did the best she could the more I healed, and the less I needed food and alcohol.
People have reached for food, people have consumed alcohol, taken drugs, or turned to gambling or compulsive sexual behavior to escape the pain of trauma. It becomes a way to cope. Studies have shown that as many as 96% of treatment-seeking substance abusers reported experiencing some kind of major traumatic event.
Addiction is the desire to feel better, and trauma is often a root cause.
Overeating Begins With Positive Intentions
You didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become addicted to food or sugar. If you experienced some kind of trauma, you most likely woke up with the desire for what all people who have experienced trauma want: safety and control and to feel better.
The positive intention of your addiction to food was to release you from the experience of being overwhelmed and unable to deal. The positive intention may have been to relax you, to let go of your fear; to avoid painful memories; and restore your ability to choose your behavior. Pass the cookies please.
Now, you can observe your addictive behavior and feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, angry, frustrated, or a wide variety of other negative emotions. Or, you can observe the positive intention underlying your addiction: the desire to make yourself feel better.
According to trauma expert Michele Rosenthal, “Acknowledging this allows you to begin understanding that while the addiction outcome is less than desirable, the behavior makes perfect sense, especially if the addiction is driven by one or more of these seven desires:
Stay safe: After trauma your own mind can feel like a danger zone, which makes being “out of it” feel safer than being in it.
Escape memories: Unwanted and unresolved memories have a way of popping up incessantly after trauma; addictions offer the mind a different area of or reduced capacity for focus that helps suppress reminiscing.
Soothe pain: Substances or the adrenalin rush of self-destructive behaviors change your body chemistry, releasing endorphins and other mood enhancers that reduce discomfort.
Be in control: Sometimes, engaging in addictive behaviors can lead you to feel strong, resilient and courageous, an experience that is tremendously alluring when trauma from the past intrudes on the present.
Create a world you can tolerate: The intense feelings brought on by fear, memories and anxiety can make any moment seem overwhelming. The release of tension brought on by addiction-oriented behavior helps facilitate a manageable experience.
Treat yourself the way you feel you deserve: Trauma can leave you feeling less than, worthless, hopeless, and damaged. The more self-destructive you behave the more it can feel like you’re living in alignment with who you think you are. While this is false it can help reduce feelings of otherness and disconnection.
Redefine who you are: Trauma changes your identity all the way down to the core of your beliefs and self-definition if you let it. It can seem as if no one understands you. Engaging in addictions can help create a sense of community by connecting you to others who feel, see, think and behave as you do. Or, addictions can help you revise your self-perception by allowing you to engage in and act out behaviors that allow you to feel stronger, more courageous, capable, etc., than trauma has left you feeling.
Identifying the positive intention behind overeating opens the door to healing. The more you learn to achieve the “positive intention” in healthy ways, the less you will need your addiction to manage post-traumatic stress.
Creating A Healing Process
Trauma related behaviors are driven by fear. Healing focuses on resolving that fear.
We all have a beautiful future waiting for us beyond our fears. Sometimes we think healing has to be long tedious and time-consuming journey, when it can happen in an instant. You have tremendous healing potential. Your goal is learning to access that potential and use it to see beyond your fear, let go of the pain, and live your life freely.
Empowering Alternatives to Addiction
Know You Are Safe: Your mind may try to convince you life is a danger zone. Practice being aware of your thoughts and practice Opposition Thinking. 98% of our fears are unfounded and untrue. Create a mantra that makes you feel safe wherever you are. Something like, “I have all I need within me. I am safe to life my life fully and freely.”
Allow Memories to be Present: Allow unwanted and unresolved memories to be present. Practice detaching from the memory and acknowledge that it was something that happened in the past, and has nothing to do with your now reality. Try not to suppress, avoid, or struggle against a memory, practice observing it like an old movie and say, Oh, there is that memory again.” And let it fall away from you.
Surrender To Your Pain: When you surrender to what is, you allow the discomfort to be present. When you get comfortable with discomfort you release the struggle. The need to soothe it, avoid it, or numb it is no longer needed when you accept that pain is a part of being human and something we all experience. When you surrender to and allow pain to be present a surprising thing happens; it dissipates.
Be in control: Choose empowering alternative behaviors that make you feel strong, resilient and courageous.
Create a world you love. When intense feelings brought on by fear, memories or anxiety arise, release the tension by taking a deep breath and releasing that feeling into the wind with your exhale. This helps manage your feelings and frees you to move past them without a second glance to create something you love.
Treat yourself the way you feel you deserve: You are worthy, whole and complete. Stop living the lie that you are not and practice living in alignment with who you truly are. Instead of connecting with yourself and others over negativity or problems, find someone you can be a “Shine Buddy” with. This person is your greatest fan and wants you to treat yourself well, love yourself and practice shinning 24 hours a day!
Redefine who you are: Engaging in self-love can create a sense of community when you connect with others who feel, see, think and behave as you do. Engage in behaviors that allow you to feel stronger, more courageous, and capable. Guiding others toward self-love reinforces it in you, and empowers you to live a fulfilling purpose driven life.
Pick up a journal and write about any trauma you may have experienced in your life and how you have used food to be safe, soothe, avoid, be in control, or beat yourself up. Really get clear on the root cause of how you use food, sugar, alcohol, or any substance to meet your emotional needs.
Once you have done this, write down 7 empowering alternatives, like I did in the list above, that you can reach for instead of food. Get creative and make sure this list resonates with you and leaves you feeling empowered.
How would your life be different if you reached for the items on this list instead of food?