Trauma interrupts and confuses our relationship with our bodies. To connect more directly with our bodies just as they are right now, we can bring more awareness to eating, hunger, and fullness.
Soothing or stressful eating
Babies eat for comfort as well as nourishment. So do growing children and adults. Eating is a fundamental sensory pleasure and a direct way to soothe our nervous systems. Of all the ways to manage stress and overwhelming emotions, food is not a bad choice. We can add more tools for emotion management over time, and food will always remain a viable choice.
For many people, eating becomes associated with stress or pain rather than pleasure and comfort. Maybe mealtimes were filled with verbal abuse, or the jaw aches from past violence, or there was so much judgment and shaming that it is hard to know what to eat. In response, we dissociate from the whole process of eating.
Food keeps you alive
The most important purpose of eating is to sustain life. Since you are reading this, you are eating successfully. Bodies can be healthy in a wide range of sizes and shapes. If you choose to bring more awareness to your eating, start with the knowledge that it is already good enough. You have good reasons to be doing exactly what you do.
If those statements trigger an internal chorus of “Yes, buts!” about your health and size and attractiveness, simply listen. Notice how much inner yelling there is about your eating, how many rules and “shoulds.” Let those yelling voices know that you hear them and understand they are very concerned about your well-being. If there is a part of you that flinches or argues, let that part know that you hear it, too. Where in your body do you feel the yelling and responses?
For most babies, barring neglect or physical issues, eating starts out simple. You got hungry, and you ate. As a toddler, if you had choices, you noticed what you were hungry for and ate that. When you were full, you stopped.
Nowadays, hunger might feel dangerous, so you avoid feeling it, or seductive, so you seek to prolong it. As an athlete, you might need to refuel your body before it signals hunger. If you have hypoglycemia or diabetes, you might need to keep careful track of how much food your body needs to keep functioning.
Notice the emotions and associations you have with hunger. Is it good, bad, neutral? What stories do you tell yourself about it? Pay attention to hunger and your responses to it as a kind observer.
Internal and external signals
How does hunger feel in your body? Is it an ache in your gut, or light-headedness, or belly rumbles? Is it increasing irritability and urgency? Is it depression and fogginess and sleepiness? Notice the physical sensations that alert you to the need to eat. If you have not noticed hunger in a long time, look for it with gentle curiosity.
What external signals trigger hunger inside you? Do you reliably get hungry at certain times of day? Do you get hungry when something smells good, or looks appealing? Does hunger arise when you are facing a task you do not quite know how to start, or an emotion you do not know how to manage? All these are fine reasons to be hungry.
Do you allow all of your hunger, or do you constrain it? Perhaps hunger is only allowed at certain times, or for certain amounts, and hunger for sweetness or comfort is frowned on. Do you tell your hunger it should be satisfied with less?
Hunger is a biological signal to find and consume food. Its purpose is to be satisfied by comfortable fullness. If we are not in contact with the fullness signals inside, we might stop too soon and remain a little hungry, or stop too late and feel uncomfortably full.
What do you associate with fullness, with plenty, with freely eating as much as you want? Does it feel like your birthright? Or does it feel greedy, like you might not deserve it or you might be taking food away from others? If you worry about affording enough food for yourself and your household, imagine what it would be like to be relieved of that worry and have plenty for everyone. This is what we all deserve.
Fully welcome at any size
Contrary to everything we hear, eating does not directly determine body size, and your body size is normal for you. If you worry about gaining weight, imagine what it would be like to be relieved of that worry and be fully welcomed at any size. Imagine that you can find and afford clothes you like that fit you well. There is plenty of room for you everywhere, and you are treated with respect and care. This is what we all deserve.
Notice the emotions and associations you have with fullness. Is it good, bad, neutral? What stories do you tell yourself about it? Pay attention to fullness and your responses to it as a kind observer.
How does fullness feel in your body? What are your signals to stop eating? Do you guess what you might want and then finish the food on your plate? Do you pause to consider whether you want seconds? Do you eat more because it tastes good, or to keep someone company, or because it will be a while before you can eat again? All these are fine reasons to eat.
If you often eat to discomfort, or you feel compelled to keep eating even when you want to stop, or if you eat less than your body wants, you might want to gently explore your signals of fullness and your reasons for disconnecting from them. When we engage in behaviors we cannot control, or we treat the body as an enemy that must be controlled, usually some part of us is trying to protect us and survive using the few tools we had available when we were small. That part might be willing to learn new tools and even rest for a while when the present is safer than the past.
As you explore hunger and fullness, you might choose to do some experiments that change your usual patterns. Observe with kindness. Any result, including not wanting to do any experiments, is interesting information about your body and your self. You have good reasons for doing what you do. Notice any hidden agendas you might have behind your experiments, like trying to change your size.
You might already pay close attention to everything you put in your mouth because of food sensitivities or other health issues. You might be numb around eating and not sense it at all. This is a chance to kindly observe the larger patterns of how you relate to food.
- Smell and look at your food before starting to eat, or dive right in.
- Bring your awareness to the inside of your mouth, or intentionally pay attention to other sensations as you eat.
- Chew a bite many more times or many fewer times than you usually do.
- Eat more slowly or more quickly than you usually do.
- Pause during a meal and check in with what you are feeling emotionally and physically.
- Eat with more people or fewer people than you usually do.
Closer to embodiment
When we allow ourselves to embody our individual experience of hunger and fullness rather than pushing ourselves to have the “right” experience, we move toward a kinder relationship with our body as a whole.
- Michelle the Fat Nutritionist advocates that It’s Okay to Love Food. I recommend all her writing about a healthy relationship to eating.
- Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift is a well-written, easy to read research paper that collects the evidence that a focus on lower weight does not improve health. “Indeed, the most comprehensive review of the research pooled data for over 350,000 subjects from 26 studies and found overweight to be associated with greater longevity than normal weight.”
- Health At Every Size is the radical idea to treat people (especially including ourselves) with respect and care at every body size.