What To Do About Trauma Sabotaging Your Diet
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
You probably have impulse control issues. You probably crave all the foods that keep you from your goal body. You probably do things that make you think you have no control.
To what extent you do these things… well that varies from person to person.
Let’s discuss some of our brain structures and how they play into our uncontrollable desires and our habit formation.
As we have evolved, so have our brain structures. We have a little part of our brain called the primitive brain . It’s within and below the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain is also known as the reptilian brain, or the animal brain. I call her my lizard bitch often. She’s a strong force in my life due to the severe trauma in my past and some hardwired instincts. So I’m constantly working with her on the faulty coping mechanisms that run on autopilot.
“Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like a brain of a crocodile. Surrounding the R-complex is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammal but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young. And finally, on the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex; civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos p.276–277
The reptilian brain is reliably rigid and compulsive, with not more than a 15 second memory. Sounds like a wonderful system to let run your life, right?
This structure is in control of our innate and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns that ensures the survival of our species .
The primal brain is in charge of what are often referred to as the five Fs:
The reptilian brain is mostly irrational by nature. It doesn't consider the consequences of your actions to obtain it's ultimate desires and will literally sacrifice your life to feed itself.
What occurs in the primitive brain is completely unconscious, meaning you aren’t consciously aware of what’s driving your behaviors, you just know there is something there . How many times have you done something you said you wouldn't? We all know the list of things we say we will never do again is exhaustive, and yet we do them on the daily. The lizard brain has one main objective — avoid pain, and seek pleasure on autopilot. This is not a conditioned response. It is built in to all of us to ensure the survival of the species.
Our lizard brain is more powerful than most humans give it credit for. They look at someone whom is engaging in behaviors that they deem ignorant and judge the fuck out of them. Not realizing the complexities of the situation.
Some of our autopilot behaviors are more detrimental and harmful than others, as witnessed in addiction to substances. Food is less of an immediate issue, but can have roots in the same place. Anyone that is struggling with these detrimental habits aren’t less than. They are fighting against a force they don’t understand. Knowledge renders beliefs obsolete. So let's dig in.
How The Brain Responds To A Perceived Attack
The lizard’s primary form of defense is to freeze, fight, or flee. There isn’t much explanation around the fighting or fleeing concept. It is fairly self explanatory. Hormones from our sympathetic system, especially adrenaline, prepare us to fight for our life . It only does so if you see a threat that your unconscious mind deems as an adversary that you can defeat. If it feels you have a chance and can kick some ass, it will attempt to.
Now if it perceives the antagonistic force as too much to overcome, we tend to flee or run for our lives. This still requires the same hormonal response so you can get away quickly.
The part that is often left out when most individuals address the fear response is the paralyzation that has been built in to protect an animal from a predator . The idea behind freezing is when an animal has been caught and has decided in milliseconds that there is no hope of escape — the only option is to “play dead” so to speak. A last ditch effort to save their life. This also initially engages the stress hormones cascade because the first line of action would have been to fight or flee.
When we are confronted with a threat, we have a top down processing that occurs in the brain . Top down processing is when our perceptions start with the big picture idea, object, or concept and then work our way down to the details. In top down processing your abstract first impressions can impact the information you gather through your five senses.
Our defense mechanism starts with the neocortex and to push data through our rational mind. If this doesn’t work and things can logically click together quickly our next mode of action comes from our primitive brain and fight or flee is initiated. If this fails and we can’t fight or get away we become immobilized and freeze.
How Trauma & Attacks are Remembered
Information that we have direct access to and need to work to consciously remember is referred to as explicit memory . We can imagine it, or create an image of the data we have acquired. Implicit memory is information that we don’t have direct access to, it is located in our subconscious, and is effortlessly remembered . It is the shit we know exists because it drives a lot of our behaviors, but we can’t create an image in our mind of what it is. A lot of people not knowing how to describe this, call it their intuition.
Most of the information and advice you get in the fitness and behavioral modification realm deals specifically with explicit memory. Researchers are becoming increasingly fascinated with how implicit memory influences our knowledge and behaviors.
Explicit memory is further broken down into Declarative and Episodic. Declarative is somewhat robotic and has no emotion attached — like recalling a phone number or remembering who the president is. Episodic memory there is most definitely a nuanced feeling — like remembering your grade school best friend or what their bedroom looked like. You have a sense of what they were like, but it isn’t concrete. Both Declarative and Episodic occur within our Neocortex.
Implicit memory is further broken down into Emotional and Procedural. Emotional memory contains all of our emotional responses, such as happiness, sadness, despair, anger, fear, and terror. Procedural memory are skilled processes such as brushing your teeth or driving. It is also responsible for our survival response and is associated with the lizard brain.
We experience trauma within the Limbic System and the Reptilian Brain primarily. So why do we need to have all this seemingly useless information? Trauma is Implicit memory, therefore it lives in our subconscious mind. Knowing this is a gold nugget of wisdom. We often have flashbacks, and subtle memories, but it definitely isn’t a strong memory we can pull from . Meaning most feel as if they are not impacted by past trauma because it isn’t a strong conscious thought. Yet they find themselves in the same patterns of self soothing, with no idea why.
“Pierre Janet, who dedicated his life to extensive psychotherapeutic studies; claimed that when people become too upset, memories cannot be transformed into a neutral narrative; a person is unable to make the recital which we call narrative memory, and yet he remains confronted by (the) difficult situation'. This results in `a phobia of memory' that prevents the integration (`synthesis') of traumatic events and splits off the traumatic memories from ordinary consciousness. He claimed that the memory traces of the trauma linger as what he called `unconscious fixed ideas' that cannot be `liquidated' as long as they have not been translated into a personal narrative. When this occurs they instead continue to intrude as terrifying perceptions, obsessional preoccupations and as somatic re‐experiences such as anxiety reactions.” 
Different Trauma Types and Our Defense Response
If the individual has a freeze response when confronted with a traumatic event it usually leads to learned helplessness . They often go into a hopeless withdrawn state and this can go on for years after the event. This usually leaves someone with the common anxiety, tension, or energy bubbling under the surface with nowhere to go, because they weren't able to complete the action. When someone responds with a fight or flee response, they know they can do something about the event and tend to not be left with the lingering helplessness.
How A Threat Turns Into a Trauma
If an animal in the wild is faced with a situation that initiates a fight or flight response or freeze response, they then shake it off. Literally. The energy that was mobilized is discharged by shaking [6,12].
Shaking is a completely normal way for us to release the tension and return to normal homeostasis . It is a primal impulse to a stressor. What is fucked is we as humans have been conditioned to grin and deal. We pretend nothing bothers us. You know, show the world how strong you are.
This is unnatural and is said to trap the stress in our bodies. The shaking is more technically known as neurogenic tremors. The tremors are the central nervous system's innate way of discharging excessive tension through rapid muscle contraction and the subsequent relaxation of the tremors to calm the body down. These tremors chill the over activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA). The HPA is responsible for our stress response, energy storage, and our emotional responses . In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky claims animals shake off the stress and get right back to living in the moment.
Humans lose this skill as they age due to being told not to act like a cry baby or told to stop being so dramatic… Some of us were even threatened with physical violence if we didn't shut up and act “normal”. The repression of these emotions and normal biological processes cause it to be stored in our skeletal muscles. We have a wicked mind body connection that many, especially those in the science world, seem to refer to as woo.
Basically anything the “evidence based” crowd doesn’t understand, they call woo.
Example: A child that has been sexually abused — the first attempt is to ENGAGE, which translates into attempting to rationalize with their attacker. When that doesn’t work we they will try to FLEE or FIGHT the attacker. Due to the child being so small and weak this tend to fail and their body completely collapses. Their body shuts down and is in a paralyzed state. Terror. They FREEZE. Sometimes their subconscious mind causes a state of amnesia and they forget the entire event or huge portions. These memories hide in the brain as a shadow. It is a beautiful process to protect us from more trauma of remembering events consciously and reliving it constantly. It is a process known as state-dependent learning and contributes and feeds into the formation of memories that are not accessible to our normal conscious brain . The child may or may not have complete recollection of the event.
These are referred to as episodic traumatic experiences and are often referred to as big T experiences by the psychiatric community . They generally refer to rape, physically abusive spouse, car accidents, bombs going off, or the loss of a child. Trauma that is less severe is referred to as little T events and generally refer to conflict with your spouse or children, infidelity, death of a pet, emotional abuse, and loss of a close relationship.
During big T experiences, freezing up or numbing out is a form of dissociating from the here and now [16–18]. It is the best thing you can do in those instances and can literally keep you sane. I know that immobilized feeling all too well. I just shut down and have a blank stare in my eyes and my brain stops going a million miles an hour. It permitted me to displace the enormity of what was happening to me when I was exposed to traumatic events such as: having a gun held to my head multiple times, being strangled, traumatic brain injuries, and the list goes on. It requires a sort of trans and non reactivity that many have not experienced. I learned to go into that trans state almost every time I was faced with strong emotions from my abuser.
I still find myself doing it when even my close friends, who have never hurt me when they challenge me in a discussion. It isn’t that I am scared of them, but rather I have been conditioned to go into these states when someone disagrees with me in person . It apears as if I am cold as fuck due to my non reactivity. This is also something you may want to consider with your complacent friend or spouse. Was there severe trauma in their past that could be leading them overuse the dissociative response?
It has been postulated that the dissociative response that people feel during a traumatic event is one of the foremost predictive criteria for developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) later in life . It is also well known that once someone has went into the freeze response in a prior event, they are more susceptible to going there again. Even if the current stimulus isn’t particularly as traumatic as the initial trauma. It simply emanates from being in a state of exorbitant amount of normal life stressors. They serve as an unconscious reminder of the acute stress linked in the mind to the initial trauma. Which explains why I tend to go into a trans and freeze up when someone shows strong emotions of anger in front of me.
Bringing It All Together
What this all indicates is when we experience trauma, we can get stuck in a fight, flee, or freeze response. We often cope with unresolved trauma or trauma patterns by utilizing things outside of ourselves to deal with these “stuck” patterns of stress. Often, especially in regards to childhood trauma, it is hypothesized to not be accessible through explicit memory [21,22].This doesn’t mean it is gone. It just means that it is stored in our implicit subconscious (below conscious awareness) memory which can be accessed via body sensations [10,23].
The way most people relieve symptoms caused by trauma are by learned maladaptive coping strategies. It is theorized that if we address the underlying trauma through Somatic Experiencing we can let go of our faulty coping mechanisms and addictions that we were using to manage the symptoms of the “stuck” trauma.
Addictive patterns, which I tend to refer to as negative habitual behaviors, are said to be an attempt to numb feelings of fear; relieve the feeling of powerlessness; self medicate for psychiatric conditions; reduce anxiety; to feel unconditional acceptance among others who utilize the same coping strategy; etc.
Most people stuck in the addictive pattern loop are unaware of its etiology. They are oblivious to the fact that it was rooted in the attempt to manage lasting patterns of their trauma. Most people don’t even attempt to address their faulty coping mechanisms until they hit midlife. By that point hundreds of associations and habit cues are set in. It makes breaking negative habits incredibly difficult to address unless you relieve the stored trauma.
So How This Ties Into Feeding Behaviors
Say you're overweight, on a diet, and have some trauma like many people do. When something like a brownie is sitting on the counter, your lizard brain goes into manic mode and thinks it needs the brownie to survive. Why? Because you have used this method in the past to comfort yourself in a stressed state. It wants to avoid that pain and discomfort it experienced in the past from trauma .
This is why urges to eat a particular food become so strong it feels like you're possessed. You reliably become anxious because that brain of yours is associating avoidance of the brownie with certain death, pain, and more trauma.
Of course we don’t need the brownie to survive, but it doesn’t make your feelings any less real.
What is the lizard brain’s main job? To survive, seek pleasure, and avoid pain (emotional and physical), and learn how to do so on autopilot. Fucking genius.
Some of our autopilot behaviors are more detrimental than others. But the underlying foundation of trauma and coping is the same. Take the person who decided to cope with booze, how many of you fit-pros and nutrition nerds would think you were better than them because you didn’t cope with ethanol. NEWS FLASH, coping restrictive dieting, binging, and your “metabolic boosters” are not different my friends — they simply have a less risky cost associated with them.
What I want to hit home here is not to judge people for their “addictions”. We are all just trying to escape the pain we have buried inside of us. We just cope with it in different
So what do you do?
Thank the gods for the development of our neocortex — which is the part of our brain that rationalizes our decisions.
The cortex gives the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception. The neocortex is not rigid like the lizard and has phenomenal learning abilities. The neocortex is also what has pushed evolution and innovation .
We can all agree some people have an easier time with this, and this is largely due to genetics, perception of traumatic events, and our early developmental environment.
So before you judge the fuck out of those who don’t have as easy of a time with rationalizing behaviors, check yourself —> you don’t have their deck of cards to play from.
If you eat that brownie when stressed, then you will experience immense pleasure and will be rewarded. You will be reliably distracted from the uncomfortable feelings that your mind is holding on to.
This serves as a reinforcement to eat all the brownies in the future. Just like rewarding your child with a sticker when they use the potty — giving yourself a brownie as a reward for coping with uncomfortable feelings is reinforcing the behavior.
This is why willpower is a faulty concept that I discussed in great detail here. It really is just conditioning and coping mechanisms, and seeking happiness. No more. No less.
It doesn’t make the choice easier initially. But sometimes all we have to do is understand this process that takes place in the brain, in order to stop it. You are perfectly normal, and your brain is functioning just as it should, if you have a relentless desire to eat a food that you have used in the past to cope.
But now that you are aware of this pattern, you need to understand that it is all a choice and can be rationalized. Many of us will need to address the underlying trauma to not yo-yo back once the goal is attained. But it does all start with the choice to not engage in these momentary pleasures. We have to actively choose to address the underlying causes and not follow through with the band aid of our chosen poison.
You will slip and make mistakes due to the unraveling of the years of conditioning, reframing trauma and faulty beliefs.
We are all driven towards things that aren’t beneficial to us if the reward is pleasure. It all comes down to exercising the choice to reinforce the behavior, or break it. Choice to heal, choice to address the trauma, choice to break faulty coping mechanisms that are no longer serving you.
Bottom line is you do have the choice. Sometimes we all make the choice to go against what we truly want and desire out of life. Sometimes we just want to self soothe. Just know when you do decide to do this, it will reinforce the behavior.
The more frequently you reward yourself with whatever the substance or process whether it be food, alcohol, drugs, or self soothing behaviors — the stronger the association between survival and whatever it is becomes.
Trauma Releasing Methods
I want to emphasize that most of these methods require visits with a professional. A good psychiatrist or someone specifically trained in the methods I will mention, can take years off your healing journey. Through combining psychology with basic biophysics — there is an opportunity to release the residual tension and internal energy, that was left over after the traumatic event.
It is best to seek out someone trained in somatic body work. There are also other modalities that are proven to be beneficial e.g., Sensorimotor Processing; EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing); Somatic Experiencing; EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique); and TRE (Tension, Stress, Trauma Release).
One of the ones I had a lot of success with was EFT and this is something I think anyone can do with or without a practitioner. I do think more somatic work is needed for severe trauma, however this method would stop a panic attack in the midst of my severe panic disorder and OCD that was spurred by a few near death experiences.
EFT is an evidence based self-help therapeutic method that has hundreds of studies to show it’s efficacy. It sounds like woo to most but I don’t really care if it doesn’t fit into the EB paradigm of possibilities, it works and that is proven [26–30].
A detailed description of how to implement this method is here.
Wrapping It Up
Addictive patterns — which I tend to prefer to refer as negative habitual behaviors, are said to be an attempt to numb feelings of fear; relieve the feeling of powerlessness; self medicate for psychiatric conditions; reduce anxiety; to feel unconditional acceptance among others who utilize the same coping strategy; etc.
Any behaviors that we use to self comfort are a symptom of a bigger problem — they are not the problem itself. Binge eating, drinking, using drugs, etc. are not the actual problem. Your problem is you are choosing to use these things to feel better and a sense of happiness and comfort.
We all do it, yet many of us look down on those who just can’t seem to stop engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is unfortunate. We all are wired up similar as far as our reactions to trauma. We are designed to react in a way that preserves our life. Yes, we have a choice in our behaviors, but we must realize that our brain is ingenious and wants to preserve your sanity. In doing so it reaches outside to find a solution.
These are the easy solutions, but anything easy is rarely worth it and they only provide temporary results. They do nothing to fix the core issues at hand. Most of them have consequences that we don’t want anyways.
Nothing in life is free. There is a cost to everything that we use outside of ourselves. If you choose bliss, you will need to let go of the idea that solutions to life’s challenges rest somewhere outside of that beautiful brain of yours.
Realize that the only tools you need to continue attain happiness are the ones inside of you. Addressing the core of why you need to quell the underlying stress is where freedom lies.
Autonomy exists as a rule — no matter what illusions the individual decides to focus their energy on. If we do have trauma it is hard to make the choice to stop reaching outside of yourself for the solution and rip the band aids off so to speak.
In the end, autonomy presents the fact that all free choice exists within the individual and nowhere else. Your lover, therapist, family, or friends cannot bring you solace or a solution to the costs that you are presently willing to pay for your belief of what is the happiest option.
If you prefer to engage in the behaviors and run you’ll choose the faulty coping strategies every time. I often say that if I let my lizard bitch run my life she would kill me. She doesn’t care what the cost of my coping mechanisms are. Just that I survive and there is a shit load of trauma stored in there to justify her relentless desire to seek relief for me. I’m appreciative that my survival drive is so strong, but that same drive can indeed kill me if I am not aware and do nothing to address the underlying stress responses. I’m even more appreciative of my prefrontal cortex that gives me that autonomy to choose to address this shit.