What is trauma? Well, in the past, most people would say, “Trauma is severe abuse or neglect.” But our more modern definition of trauma is that trauma is anything that causes you to lose an essential part of yourself – a sense of security or safety, peace or love. Over 2/3 of children under age 16 reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16. What is important to understand is that trauma is common in individuals with substance use disorders and eating disorders. In fact, a history of trauma can increase your risk for attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety as well as many medical issues including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Recognizing that you or a family member has experienced childhood trauma can help you understand why you’ve had trouble dealing with food and body image issues such as food addiction, binge eating and emotional eating.
In this episode, you will learn:
1. What are examples of childhood trauma?
2. How does childhood trauma lead to binge eating, food addiction or emotional eating?
3. What can family members do to help heal childhood trauma?
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I don’t know about you guys, but it’s been really, really hot in Southern California and I’m just so looking forward to the fall and winter and a chance to cool off. It’s also been a big, heavy flu season, and I myself got the flu, which I don’t, I, I can name maybe three times. I’ve had the flu in my entire life so that was a bit of a surprise and I was down for a, a little over a week. Still have a cough, but getting better. So one challenge after another we have to meet. It seems like the world is forever altered since the pandemic. I hope wherever you are, you’re staying cool enough, warm enough that you’re in the cold country and well enough.
So let’s get started. We’re gonna be talking about what is childhood trauma and is it the cause of my food addiction, binge eating, or emotional eating? Well, what is trauma in general? Well, when I first started speaking about trauma, doing conferences about trauma, we were mostly referring to severe abuse or neglect. But more recently, the definition has really evolved and is something that we talk about trauma as being anything that causes you to lose an essential part of yourself, a sense of safety, security, or a sense of peace. Now, there are many events that can be traumatic, especially to children and especially if the child does not have good adult support, parental or grandparents or someone in their family who’s there to help them navigate a traumatic or adverse experience.
Well, when we talk about childhood trauma, obviously if a child has been abused physically, emotionally, and sexually, that is very traumatic. But there are other things that can also be traumatic for children. So let’s look at that. Well, childhood trauma is much more common than you might think, and I work with it a lot in the anchor program because I would say that the vast majority of people who come to me with binging food addiction and emotional eating have some childhood trauma or neglect. But the statistics show that over two thirds of children under the age of 16 have had at least one traumatic event before they turn 16. And here’s some of the things that could be included in that psychological, physical, or sexual abuse community or school violence. Just think about all the school shootings and how that has affected children and teenagers witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, national disasters, or terrorism attack, commercial sexual exploitation, sudden or violent loss of a loved one, refugee experiences, and right now we are watching that play out in a lot, both at our southern border with Mexico, where we have a lot of people coming from Central America who are escaping some kind of danger, you know, whether it be gang violence or threats against your family and then the war in Ukraine and all of the refugees that have been spawned from that war, that’s still going going on. Other child traumas include military, family related stressors like deployment or parental loss or injury, any assaults, whether it be physical or sexual, any neglect and serious accidents or life threatening illness.
Now when we talk about neglect, I was actually surprised to find that the category of neglect is one of the most common ways that children experience trauma and that could be, oh, I can just tell you a number of experiences from some of my patients over the many years that I’ve been talking with them about this. It could be neglect in terms of having a parent or caretaker who is mentally ill, and so they are either in hospital or they are, you know, not functioning as well as they could. And therefore, when the child gets home from school, there’s no one there to help them with their homework or to help them find food and often there can be hunger that results from that. Same thing with having parents with substance use disorders that can lead to neglect. There’s also some different ones I’ve heard over and over where maybe you’re from a very large family and others of your siblings may have mental illness or substance use disorders or autism or some special need, and then the family becomes very focused on dealing with that particular child and unfortunately and unwittingly you may have been neglected because of that. So there’s a lot of ways in which neglect can show up, and I think that’s something that most people don’t think about.
So who is affected by trauma? Well, trauma affects people from all walks of life. Doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you what your gender is, we know that trauma against people who are LGBTQIA is very high. So sexual orientation can be one of the reasons people are traumatized. Socioeconomic status. So poverty in particular. Living in food deserts, experiencing childhood hunger and then race-based trauma. And also, it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. So trauma is, as I said, especially common in those who have eating disorders and mental illness and substance use disorders.
So every day the stats show that more than 1000 children are treated in emergency departments in America due to physical assault injuries. So that’s one in four high school students in a, at least one physical fight, one in five high school students who was bullied at school. I’ve got that number’s really much higher than that. One in six who experience cyber bullying, so bullying online, and then 19% of injured and 12% of physically ill youth who have post traumatic stress disorder. More than half of families in America have been affected by some type of disaster, so, again, the statistics show in young people ages 12 to 17, 8% reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual assault, 17% reported physical assault and 39% reported witnessing violence.
So how do you know if a child under your care or maybe a niece or a nephew, has experienced trauma? Well, the signs of trauma can be different at different ages and stages for children, for example, preschool children who are, you know, they’re not really verbal enough to tell you often that something has happened. They may develop separation anxiety from a parent or caregiver. They may be crying more than usual or screaming a lot, acting out, eating poorly and losing weight, or having nightmare. So obviously children do have nightmares who are, have not been traumatized, but certainly that’s something to look into if the nightmares are severe and recurrent, and the child is also exhibiting some of the other symptoms.
Now, when you get into elementary school, children may show up as being anxious or fearful. A lot of guilt or shame, having a hard time focusing or concentrating and having difficulty sleeping. And then when they’re in middle or high school, you may notice depression or isolation. And that’s a tough one because we know adolescents tend to isolate in their rooms a lot anyway, but certainly if it’s associated with depression or the one manifestations of depression, which is anger. You know, angry outbursts, rages, things like that. And then developing eating disorders or self-harm behaviors like cutting or other self-harm behaviors. And then if there’s any evidence of alcohol use or drug use, If they become involved in risky sexual behavior, like early promiscuity, having multiple partners, things like that, then that can be assigned to. So the bottom line is, it’s important to note that trauma is a risk factor for almost all behavioral health and substance use disorders. So mental illness, eating disorders, drug and alcohol disorders, think trauma.
Now, why does trauma lead to these other problems? Well, it has to do with how the body deals with trauma. The body, you know, everyone has an alarm system. We call it the fight or flight or freeze in their body that’s designed to keep them safe from harm. When this is activated, this tool prepares the body to fight or to run away. The alarm can be activated when there’s any sign of trouble, and then it can leave children feeling scared, angry, irritable, or even withdrawn.
So there’s some healthy steps that children can take when they go into fight or flight, and one is just to recognize, be aware of what activates the alarm system and what the body does when it’s activated. So if, if your child has experienced some shock of some kind or some kind of adversity, you know, having a conversation with them to let them know, yeah, is your heart racing minus, you know, that really upset me and that has made me my stomach get upset and whatever the signs are that when you are in fight or flight.
And then also helping them decide whether there is real trouble or it’s a false alarm. So there can be times when children are frightened about new experiences, for example, and that’s not necessarily a traumatic thing like starting kindergarten or moving to a new school, or all sorts of new experiences children may find, they may be afraid. But if they have that support from a trusted adult, that helps mitigate the body’s alarm mechanism. And then teaching your children deep breathing or other relaxation methods, it’s just so easy to teach a child, you know, the four square breath that we use in the anchor program, or just breathing into the count of five and breathing out to the count of eight or you know, breathing into their belly, you know, the belly breathing. These techniques can stand a child in good stead throughout their lifetime. As well as the mini tapes and books now available that teach children relaxation methods.
So the impact of child trauma is that it causes the bodies to go into this stress reaction. It causes the body to go into a fight or flight reaction, and children who have survived some kind of traumatic experience may show up with learning disabilities and may have lower grades, more suspensions and expulsions. They may be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is one of the conditions associated with the history of trauma. They may have increased use of health and mental health services, increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice system, or long term health problems like diabetes and heart disease. So it’s important to really look for these signs that trauma may have occurred, and see if you can get your child help or if you were that child and you didn’t receive help, there is hope. We know that children can and do recover from traumatic events, and adults can play a big role in their recovery. But if you are an adult and you’ve experienced trauma in your childhood, and you’re now experiencing food and body image issues, that’s something that there’s hope for as well. And that’s exactly what we work with in the anchor program.
So a critical part of a child’s recovery is having that supportive caregiving system. So it’s needs to be trauma informed, you’re gonna send your child for therapy, they should be sent to a trauma informed therapist, for example. And then there are lots of things that families and caregivers can do as well. So with proper support, many children really are able to adapt to and overcome childhood trauma. As you know, children are very adaptive. So as a family member, or if you’re not a family member, but you’re involved with a child, you’re a caring adult, you can play an important role by assuring the child that they’re safe and making sure that they’re safe talking about ways for them to seek safety at home and at school and really reinforcing for them that he or she is not to blame for what happened. Because it’s natural for children to blame themselves for events, even events that are completely out of their control. It’s also important to be patient because just like with grief, there’s no correct timetable for healing from trauma. Some children are very resilient naturally, and they may recover very quickly, but others it may take more time.
So it’s really important to make sure that they don’t feel guilty or bad about any feelings or thoughts that they have. Now if that isn’t enough, it’s often necessary for you to help the child by getting professional care with a therapist who is trauma trained and especially trained in treating trauma in children and families. And we know that there’s a lot of evidence based treatments now that we can use with children and adults. And one of those is teaching children how to manage their emotions and to manage their stress through some of the things I mentioned earlier, like breathing techniques and relaxation skills. There’s also a newer therapy called exposure therapy, or in which you talk about the traumatic event with the therapist but at the speed that doesn’t cause distress to the child. And then creating kind of a coherent narrative is, this is called narrative therapy. It’s a story of what happened and that’s, it’s an often, it’s often really difficult for children to contextualize what happened to them. So helping them to make sense of it in a way that matters and they can understand. And then really correcting any distorted ideas they have about what happened. So sometimes children will think, oh, I did something wrong. That’s why that happened to me or if I hadn’t gone to that place, Then this wouldn’t happen, or if I hadn’t talked to that person. So you wanna really put the blame on the responsible people who cause the trauma or person who caused the trauma and help the child to understand that it’s not their fault.
And then it’s really, really important to identify if you can, or with the help of a therapist, any of the beliefs that are unhealthy and wrong that result from the trauma. So a child who’s traumatized tries to make sense of it, and as I said, they may think, oh, if that happened to me, it must be because I’m bad or that children like me can never have a normal life again. And we call in the anchor program. We call those core beliefs. So those beliefs are things that lead you to feel like you’re not worthy, you’re not good enough, you’re not lovable, and they start as a result of something happening to you usually when you are younger or in periods of, you know, big transition or upheaval in your family. And so if those beliefs go unchecked, they become unconscious and they form what I call like the operating system of your life. Just like your computer has an operating system. These core beliefs like, I’m not worthy really form the operating system of your life. And that can, in the background, lead to things like eating disorders, substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, and so on.
So what happens if you’re an adult and you never got treatment for your trauma that happened in childhood. Well, we know that our bodies, as Vessel Vanco said, the body keeps the score, the body holds the trauma, and that means that you may find yourself being triggered by certain types of physical contact being in situations that trigger your trauma or certain sense. Even certain foods can trigger trauma. And you may have noticed if you have a lot of trauma, like say you met somebody for the first time and they say a particular phrase, or they have a certain cologne of perfume on that can cause a trauma reaction. And how do you know if you’re having a trauma reaction? Well, it’s really where your body is flooded with feelings, and these may be the same kinds of feelings you had during the original trauma experience. You could also be flooded with that sense that you’re not safe and feel really threatened, like you’re not secure, you’re not at peace. All of these feelings and many more may have been part of the original traumatic experience. And then when you have a new situation in your life, it can bring that all back. So maybe your boss raises his voice at you. He may not even have yelled at you, but slightly raised his voice, or somebody gets angry at you. You may have a reaction to that that’s way higher and above what most people would have responded with, and that could be because of your past trauma.
So just think about that for a moment and see if you can identify where your trauma has been trigger. And where you may have said to yourself, I, I don’t know why I got so upset about that, or the one I hear a lot is, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Why am I reacting this way? Why am I doing this? Well, if you’ve had childhood trauma, that may be the reason why you are so upset more than even you expect or why you’re reacting in a certain way. So think about situations in your life where you’ve had that kind of experience and see if you can identify the emotions you had during your original trauma.
Many times you may not be able to because you were too young, or you may not really be in touch with your feelings enough to do that. But if the trauma happens, say when you were a teenager, you may have some memories it. The other thing that happens with trauma, I remember we’re talking about childhood trauma, which is something happening before the age of 18. When you’re young, your brain is still developing, and when you have a trauma, when you’re young, it actually changes. The connections between the brain cells and that can lead to hyperactivity of your stress response. So again, you may find that you are more reactive to stress or way more sensitive to stress than other people you know, and that may be why you use food in response to stress as a way to tamp down or numb yourself from those overwhelming trigger emotions.
Let’s say you had an event like the loss of a job, which I’ve experienced more than once. I’m not ashamed to say. Say you have something like that and you’re maybe one out of 50 people who are laid off from a company, and you may actually go off the deep end, become depressed, start overeating, gain a lot of weight, have other negative behaviors such as drinking, et cetera. If that happens, that may be your reaction to stress, which was changed from your childhood trauma, and people who’ve had that childhood trauma experience then have a more exaggerated response to stress compared to people who have not.
And finally, when you go through a lot of stress, like a traumatic event or multiple traumatic events, I’ve mentioned that your brain connections change. The other thing you may have noticed is that you may have what we call emotional dysregulation. And what does that mean? Well, again, that means that your emotions are much stronger, more intense, harder for you to tolerate. So when you get upset, you really get upset and you find it difficult to just sit with that discomfort. When you get sad, you get really down in the dumps and you may even feel like hurting yourself or feel like overeating or binging. Those are some of the things that you may ask yourself, whether they apply to you. Whether they resonate with you, and if so, you may have a history of childhood trauma.
So I hope this was helpful to you. First of all, I like to talk about childhood trauma because many of us as parents have never been educated on the effects of childhood trauma. And anytime that you can identify trauma in your children, for example, before they become adults, you may be able to break that cycle of substance use disorders, mental illness, or eating disorders by getting them help sooner rather than later. So it’s important to be aware of that. And then it’s also important to heal if you are an adult who experience childhood trauma. To heal that trauma in yourself and that’s exactly what we work with in the Anchor program. So I hope this was helpful again, and I look to talking you next time. Thanks for listening.