A hidden reason for repeated relapse

What if you’ve cleaned up your diet, found your bigger yes, made time for self care, and you’re still struggling with frequent, repeated returns to your old ways?

I’m not talking about having pizza one night and cake at a wedding in the same week. I’m talking about several times every week, for weeks on end. Periods of time where you abandon all your boundaries, to the point where you gain weight and lose hope. Again.

You want to lose weight, but it seems like there’s also something in you that… kinda doesn’t.

There could be a few things going on, but one that’s often overlooked is personal trauma or extreme stress.

Robb Wolf, author of Wired to Eat, said in a podcast interview with Chris Kresser:

I’ll be working with a client and … in one way or another, [they say] the following: “I’m trying to develop a healthy relationship with food.” On first blush, [I respond], “Okay, that’s totally reasonable.” Who could argue with that? …

Then I start asking some questions. Is it really about the food? … I would dig and dig and dig, and I found a very consistent trend: almost always somewhere in the past, this person has suffered some sort of pain. There’s been some sort of a traumatic event — that could be family, school, or peer group. It could be a variety of things. And for whatever reason, food has become a palliative [comfort-giving] tool in dealing with that pain, and then that can lead into overeating. …

And what I’ve noticed is that a really strong focus on that relationship with food guarantees that the fundamental underlying issues will not be dealt with.

We’ve turned this into a situation of chasing symptoms and not root cause… something that literally ensnares and entraps us and distracts us from actually dealing with the root issues that are ultimately going to liberate us out of this scenario.

This connection is confirmed by a study at Kaiser Permanente. The researcher/doctor oversaw a weight loss clinic, and was trying to figure out why certain very overweight patients would see partial success, then drop out of the program. They noticed that all the clients who quit had a similar pattern of weight gain: they didn’t gain slowly over years; they gained suddenly within one year. He stumbled on the answer in an interview with one of the drop-outs, when he asked how much she weighed when she first became sexually active. When she answered “40,” he thought that he’d read the question wrong or she misunderstood him. When he clarified and she answered “40 pounds: I was four years old,” and broke into tears, he suddenly realized what she was saying.

Studies report that anywhere from one in nine to one in three girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.

The research team interviewed 286 other clinic dropouts and found that most of those who had dropped out of the study had been sexually abused as children. A comment from one of the women shed deeper insight into what was going on: “Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be,” she said. For many of the survivors, extra weight was a protection against unwanted attention.

A later study of more than 17,000 people found a wide variety of adverse events occurring in their childhood. Years later, the echoes of these events were affecting their weight, addictions, and other health issues. The 10 childhood events they looked at included:

⦁ Physical abuse
⦁ Sexual abuse
⦁ Emotional abuse
⦁ Physical neglect
⦁ Emotional neglect
⦁ Mother treated violently
⦁ Household substance abuse
⦁ Household mental illness
⦁ Parental separation or divorce
⦁ Incarcerated household member

(For more thorough coverage of this research, read The Shocking Way Childhood Trauma Affects Your Physical Health, by counselor Lucille Zimmerman.)

While this study focused on childhood events, trauma isn’t limited to childhood. Have you experienced any of these in adulthood?

⦁ divorce
⦁ emotional, sexual, verbal, and/or physical abuse (past or present)
⦁ a loved one in personal or health crisis
⦁ a loved one with life-altering mental illness
⦁ death of a loved one
⦁ a grief that’s been stuffed, not processed
⦁ protracted or life-altering illness in yourself or immediate family
⦁ survivor of trauma (car accident, natural disaster, etc.)
⦁ rape, robbery, or other violence (including war, or war-like conditions where you live)
⦁ unresolved guilt over abortion or other deep regret

We certainly can’t change the past, and we often can’t change current stressors, but we can change how we react to them. That’s learnable. If you suspect that one or more of these may be at play in your difficulties with eating and food, let me gently but strongly encourage you to seek professional help. (This is an area where I’m not qualified to offer direct support.)

Even a strong person can’t lift a piano alone.

Everyone needs help carrying a heavy burden.

If you’ve sought help in the past that didn’t make a difference or made things worse, please don’t give up! Not every counselor is a good fit for you. I’ve been to several counselors over the last 40 years: some were great, some not so much. It might also be helpful to find a support group or life coach, for example. Keep looking for counselors or other support until you find someone who will listen to you, affirm your experience, and help you work through it in a productive way.

Have you considered whether you need to start (or give another go at) professional help, to help you move forward regarding past or current pain?

I have benefitted greatly from therapy over the years. With the help of wise counselors, I’ve made changes and endured seasons I never could have on my own. I encourage you, friend, if you’re stuck and need help: seek it.

Below are a few tips for finding a good therapist. (This list is adapted from Psych Central, with my own edits and experience peppered in.)


If you’re a praying person, start here. God knows your needs and He knows the resources in your community. Ask Him to lead you to the right helper.


Ask trusted friends, mentors, or pastors for references. Read therapists’ bios on their website. Look for reviews online, and at the Better Business Bureau.

Look for someone with relevant experience.

If you’re seeking help for a particular issue, look for therapists who have experience in or specialize in that area. There are counselors who specialize in women and eating issues, or trauma recovery. Usually, the bio on their website will say what their specialties are.

Try to set up a preliminary meeting or phone call.

See if the therapist you’re interested in offers a session where you can ask questions about their treatment approach, how faith figures into their treatment, or any other questions you have, before you commit to a long term relationship. Then you can better assess if you feel the two of you might be a good fit.

Check insurance.

If you’re using insurance, find out the requirements of your insurance company, and make sure your therapist accepts your insurance. If not, ask if a sliding payment scale or a self-pay rate is available.

Never settle.

If you’re not comfortable with the first therapist, don’t feel bad about changing. You may need to see a few before you find the one that’s right for you. Continue your search until you find someone you feel you can trust. (That doesn’t mean you’ll have zero nerves about it. It can be a little uncomfortable to start this process; that’s normal.)

Your search may be short and fruitful, or it may take some time and be discouraging, but finding a therapist who can really help you is worth the wait, and worth the investment.


art by @thistlequiff, Instagram

Friend, I know this can be a scary step. If you’d like some encouragement, feel free to reach out to me. Again, I’m not qualified to counsel you, but I can pray for you (if you like), tell you what a difference professional help has made for me, and loan you some hope that it could make positive changes for you.

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