emotional health

Weight Loss: Two Major Overlooked Components (Part II) - Trauma + Unprocessed Emotions by emily penn

In case you missed last week’s post on toxicity and how it impacts weight loss, check that out here.

Today we’re going to dive into another component of weight loss that most people don’t take into account. It’s not talked about much, it seems a little esoteric, and there’s not much research on the subject (but it has started!). I think it’s going to be one of the most important things that we need to address as a culture, and I believe you’ll be hearing more and more about it in the upcoming years.

I’m talking about trauma, repressed and unprocessed emotions and their connection with health and weight. To some, this may seem obvious. To others, this may seem outlandish. Even as recently as the 1990s, if you were a scientist suggesting that there was a connection between emotions and physical health - you would have been laughed out of the room.

But we’re starting to understand this process more. The mind-body connection is a foundational part of ancient medicine systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, but somehow in our modern Western culture, we’ve lost it. The brain is the brain and the body is the body and your feelings have nothing to do with either. We’re seeing this idea of mind-body connection starting to come back, though. And thank goodness because I truly believe it is one of the most overlooked and most important keys to achieving health.


Modern Science and Ancient Wisdom

In 1985 Dr. Vincent Felitti, a physician and then-Chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventative Medicine in San Diego, was stumped when 55% of the 1,500 people who were enrolled in his weight-loss clinic every year left before completing the program. So he began to interview those who had dropped out of the program and discovered that many of them had suffered traumatic events in their lifetime.

“Another piece of the puzzle dropped into place during an interview with another clinic dropout, a woman who had been raped when she was 23. In the year after the attack, she gained 105 pounds. ‘As she was thanking me for asking the question,’ says Felitti, ‘she looks down at the carpet, and mutters, ‘Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.'‘ Felitti began to realize that obese people didn’t see their fat as a problem. For many, it was a solution.” (1).

Felitti ended up developing what’s known as the ACE Score - Adverse Childhood Events. These include everything from verbal, physical and sexual abuse to having an alcoholic parent, losing a parent through divorce, having a family member in prison, having an abused mother or having a mentally ill parent.

“Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems.”


Felitti continued to research his ideas on a larger scale into the late 1900s and early 2000s. Around the same time, neurobiologists were researching the connection between childhood trauma and chronic illness. Piece together the ACE Study and neuroscience of childhood trauma and you get a compelling story:

“Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on schoolwork. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers or principals because they are unable to trust adults. With failure, despair, and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. They see them as a way to obtain relief and to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame. In other words, a solution, not a problem.”

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Today you can even find information about this topic on WebMD, which I was both surprised and delighted about. The article, titled “With Stress and Trauma Come Excess Weight in Women”, looks at new research illuminating this connection. The study looked at 22,000 middle aged and older women. 23% of participants were obese. Participants who reported more than one traumatic life event were 11% more likely to be obese, while women who reported 4+ negative life events in the previous 5 years were 36% more likely to be obese.

Psychological stress and trauma is not something that’s typically addressed in weight loss programs. Patients are told to eat less and move more (which we know doesn’t work). Holistic nutrition - which takes into account movement, daily stressors and management of this stress - takes it a step further, but it’s still not addressing what could potentially be the root cause of so many people’s health and weight challenges.

In the 1980s, a woman named Dr. Candace Pert discovered neuropeptides, which she called “molecules of emotion”. Neuropeptides act as messengers between the brain and the immune system. This finding supported the idea that thoughts and emotions directly impact the physical body and our health. Her research was extremely controversial, and she was a badass scientist who did not get the credit she deserves (literally, she got screwed over by a former mentor). I’ll link to her book under “Resources” at the end of this article.

But this is basically just hard science that appeases our Western science-driven minds on a topic that traditional medicine systems have known for years. Emotions are a huge part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Each emotion is tied to a different organ and it’s recognized that an excess of certain emotions can causes imbalances in the organs and if sustained over time, the whole body, which leads to disease and illness.

For example, in TCM anger is associated with the liver. Let’s say someone is still angry at a parent for abandoning them, and they’ve been carrying this unprocessed emotion for many years. They may start experiencing symptoms of a rise in Qi (pronounced “chi” - Qi is life energy) such as headaches, migraines, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, insomnia, red and blotchy skin and excessive thirst - all symptoms of a liver imbalance (2).

Can you imagine an unprocessed emotion such as anger in addition to all the toxicity our livers are experiencing? No wonder the body breaks down and gets sick!

According to ancient TCM wisdom (and many other mind-body systems like Ayurveda and Yoga - and Dr. Candace Pert!) the most powerful technique is “letting go”. Feel an emotion, experience it in your body and let it flow through you. It’s easier said than done, and it takes practice. If it were really that easy, we wouldn’t be in the collective physical and mental health criss that we are in.

As Felitti discovered in his study, for his participants the weight they carried was not the problem, it was the solution. Putting on weight is a physical protection from being seen, an insulation from difficult emotions, a way to deflect people’s attention, attraction, and love. It’s a way to avoid being vulnerable in a world that makes it terrifying to be vulnerable - especially if you’ve already been hurt (physically or emotionally). For most people this happens at a subconscious level.

According to Andrea Bell, LCSW, she’s heard many responses such as this: “When I lost weight, I constantly felt vulnerable. Like everyone was looking at me and could see right to my core. When I’m fat, I’m invisible.” (3).

Geneen Roth also addresses this issue in her work. Her book, “Women, Food and God” is a must-read for anyone who has struggled with their weight. She explores the relationship between our beliefs, our experiences, how and what we choose to eat - and how that manifests for us physically. She has written several books and leads retreats on the topic.

If we are interested in finding out what we actually believe - not what we think, not what we say, but what our souls are convinced is the bottom-line truth about life and afterlife - we need go no further than the food on our plates.
- Geneen Roth


When addressing the topic of weight loss, we have to look beyond just the food that we’re eating and the movement that we’re doing. We need to look at toxicity, like we discussed in Part I. And we need to look at our emotional state. We need to reflect on our life and figure out where we are still holding on to emotions, grudges, feelings that aren’t serving us anymore. Many of us have had to stuff down emotions for one reason or another, or maybe our families didn’t talk about uncomfortable things. Most people don’t have the tools or anyone in their lives who has the tools - to process unpleasant emotions.

This is me after crying my way through some of my feelings. Crying is an amazing and effective way to relieve stress, flush cortisol from your system and process your emotions.

This is me after crying my way through some of my feelings. Crying is an amazing and effective way to relieve stress, flush cortisol from your system and process your emotions.

The mechanism of weight gain in relation to trauma and unprocessed emotions is a little different for everyone. Maybe the weight gain is seemingly inexplicable, happening on some cellular level that is hard to identify. Maybe it’s high levels of cortisol surging through our bodies for years. Stress wrecks our microbiomes, so that could be contributing. Eating food for comfort. Drinking to excess to numb emotions. Regardless of the mechanism, if you don’t get to the underlying root cause, which is the unprocessed emotion or trauma, you won’t be successful long term with weight loss.

A few personal anecdotes: my brother and I both gained a lot of weight around the time of our parents’ divorce. Some of mine was from puberty, but there was no doubt that both of us were seeking comfort from food at the time. My junior year of college, I was abroad in Paris and experienced the most painful breakup of my life. I gained weight that year. Perhaps it was from all the French food and the excess of alcohol, both mechanisms for me escaping my feelings. And there have been blips over the years - times where all of a sudden I seem to put on 5 or 10 pounds that suddenly won’t go away and amazingly, it’s almost always linked to some emotion I’m hanging on to, TIGHTLY. It’s resentment or stress or anger. And as soon as I get through that emotion, the weight drops away. It’s truly interesting to observe and experience.

*Please note, traumas and unprocessed emotions are not the cause for weight loss resistance for everyone. I simply want to highlight an overlooked aspect that could be affecting some people. In any case, extra weight or not, dealing with your emotional health is crucial to physical health and wellbeing.


Working Through Emotions

Meditation + spending time in nature are two of my favorite ways to keep my emotional health in check.

Meditation + spending time in nature are two of my favorite ways to keep my emotional health in check.

  • Get used to feeling your feelings - this is the most simple and basic way to process your emotions. Often times as soon as we feel something uncomfortable come up, we distract ourselves - that might look like eating, drinking alcohol, doing drugs, having sex. It might be as innocent as watching TV or going out with friends - but those are distractions, too. All you have to do is be present with your emotions. Notice how they feel in your body. Cry if you need to, scream, punch a pillow, listen to sad or angry music. The point is to allow yourself to feel the emotion, let it move through your body. And it will pass, and when it does - let it go. This sounds easier than it is. It takes practice and commitment.

  • Movement - moving your body is one of the best ways to move energy and process emotion through your body. Any kind of movement will work - yoga, walking, biking, crossfit, running, weightlifting, dancing, hiking, climbing. I find yoga to be especially potent for unlocking emotions that we store in our body. I’ve cried my way through more than a few yoga classes.

  • Write about it - writing down your feelings is an amazing tool to help you process them. I’ve been journaling since I was seven and there are times in my life where my journal saved me. You can say whatever you want, you don’t have to worry about anybody judging you. I’ve had many epiphanies while journaling.

  • Meditation - the practice of being still and quiet sounds easy, but so many of us resist it. Having a regular meditation practice helps us to notice our thoughts and feelings, without being ruled by them. It also helps connect us with our intuition. If you’re a beginner, start small with just 5 minutes a day and see if you can work your way up to 20. A regular meditation practice has had a profound impact on my reactivity, anxiety and general attitude towards life.

  • Seek support - find people in your life that you trust and can talk to about your feelings. Having a support system is great, but sometimes we need professionals and there is no shame in that. Work with a mental health professional who can help you process old traumas and navigate any emotional concerns you might have.

*Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. All these suggestions are from my own personal experience, experiences of other people in my life or my own research.


Resources

  • Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child - this book was a game changer for me. It illuminated the many ways I was acting out in my adult life as a result of experiences in my childhood. This was really the first book that got me doing emotional and spiritual work.

  • Women Food and God - such a great book for anyone who’s been struggling with their weight and can’t seem to nail down why.

  • Molecules of Emotion - written by Dr. Candace Pert, who discovered neuropeptides and basically proved that our emotions impact our health. Not only a story about a badass woman scientist, but also a peek into the early science of mind-body medicine.

  • The Biology of Belief - this book is still on my list, but Bruce Lipton is one of the original proponents of the idea that our thoughts can affect our biology.

  • The Untethered Soul - he talks a lot about the process of allowing your emotions to move through your body, with a larger focus on working on your relationship with your inner self and your experience of the world around you.

  • Heal (documentary) - a relatively new documentary about the power of our mind and our thoughts on the healing process. Totally fascinating.