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 [1]. 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 [2].

The primal brain is in charge of what are often referred to as the five Fs:

  • Feeding

  • Fighting 

  • Fleeing

  • Freezing 

  • Fucking

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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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. 

Perceived Trauma 

When we are confronted with a threat, we have a top down processing that occurs in the brain [6]. 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 [7]. 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 [8]. 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 [9]. 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.