Trauma is an unfortunately common experience, with an estimated 64% of adults in Canada having experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma can range from abuse and neglect to accidents and natural disasters, and its psychological effects have been well-documented. However, the effect of trauma on the physical body is less often discussed, particularly when it comes to weight management.
It is now believed that trauma can have a profound effect on the autonomic nervous system, which regulates automatic bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion. Specifically, it is thought that trauma can disrupt the normal functioning of the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body that runs from the brainstem to the abdomen and is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including digestion.
What happens when the vagus nerve is triggered?
The freeze response is a natural survival mechanism in which the body shuts down and goes into a state of immobilization, reducing pain and protecting against further harm. However, when the freeze response is activated repeatedly, such as in cases of chronic neglect or abuse, it can become stuck and lead to a persistent feeling of numbness and disconnection from the body. When the body is stuck in freeze it
Sympathetic overdrive is another physical response to trauma in which the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated, leading to the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This response is useful in short-term emergencies, but when prolonged over time, it can lead to chronic stress and a host of health problems, including weight gain.
Trauma affects the functioning of your digestion and hormones.
The vagus-gut connection refers to the link between the vagus nerve and the digestive system. When the vagus nerve is functioning correctly, it signals the brain to release digestive enzymes and to increase blood flow to the digestive organs. However, when it is disrupted by trauma, the digestive system can become compromised, leading to a host of digestive issues, such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
Stress triggers a hormonal response that releases cortisol and adrenaline, two chemicals that are linked to weight gain. The release of cortisol increases blood sugar levels and activates insulin, which leads to increased storage of fat in the body. Adrenaline, on the other hand, increases heart rate and stimulates the body to burn more calories, but if the stress is prolonged, it can also lead to an increased appetite and overeating.
In some cases, trauma can lead to binge eating, which is a coping mechanism to deal with the feelings of shame, guilt, or fear that arise from the trauma. Binge eating can also be a way of numbing out or dissociating from the body, which can be particularly difficult for those who have experienced physical trauma.
Can relaxation lead to weight loss?
Feelings of safety are essential for the proper functioning of the vagus nerve and the digestive system. When we feel safe, our body can enter into a relaxed state, which enables us to digest food properly. However, when trauma has disrupted our ability to feel safe, it can lead to a cycle of overeating or undereating, depending on the individual's response.
Somatic movement practices can be helpful in supporting trauma relief and weight management. These practices can help individuals to reconnect with their bodies, release tension and trauma from the body, and cultivate feelings of safety and relaxation. By understanding the connection between trauma, the freeze response, sympathetic overdrive, and the vagus nerve, we can begin to explore ways to support individuals in managing their weight and finding relief from trauma-related symptoms. Somatic movement practices are one such support that can aid in the healing process.