In the previous piece, I gave an example of a client (Jane) whose emotional hunger contributed to her poor eating habits and weight gain. This time, I provide an even more extreme case study.
Sexual Abuse and Obesity
Anna was a 30-year-old woman whose significant obesity since age 18 was clearly rooted in emotional trauma. Anna, like Jane, had a habit of overeating when stressed. She knew how to eat properly but could not do so consistently. Her stress eating typically began after talking with her mother during her drive home from work. When I first met with Anna at her initial consultation, I asked her if she had experienced anything traumatic. While this term is open to broad interpretation, there was no question in her mind. Anna immediately burst into tears and revealed that when she was 12 years old, her mother took her to a physician to treat a respiratory infection. The doctor told Anna to remove her underwear for the physical exam, a request she felt was inappropriate given the purpose of her medical visit. Despite her misgivings, she obeyed the doctor, after which he forcefully spread her knees and molested her. To add insult to injury, her mother sat only a few feet away, watched the entire act, and did nothing to intervene. Amazingly, she and her mother had never discussed it even once.
It was immediately clear that Anna’s thorn consisted of her memory of this experience, her self-judgment, and her perception of her mother’s disloyalty and lack of support. The resulting anger towards her mother and herself caused an itch that was “eating” at her. The occurrence of stress eating immediately after her frequent conversations with her mother made perfect sense since those interactions reminded her subconsciously of the emotional injury at age 12.
Anna also felt shame, which is an extremely toxic emotion and quite common among those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It is not the sexual abuse itself that causes shame but the self-abusive and self-blaming interpretation of the experience. One reason for the association between shame and sexual abuse is that religion (primarily Christianity) has labeled sex “bad” or shameful, and so the judgment of the act can lead to beliefs such as, “I’m dirty,” “I’m a bad person,” or “I’m not worthy of love.” Those beliefs generate shame, self-rejection, or self-hatred, which often leads to significant substance abuse manifesting as drug abuse, alcoholism, or significant weight gain.
After Anna’s first consensual sexual experience at 18, she suddenly began to gain weight, eventually totaling 100 pounds over several years. She knew that the weight gain was the ultimate effect of her stress and difficult relationship with her mother, but she did not realize how critical a factor her emotional trauma and shame had been. When someone cries at the first mention of a traumatic event, it’s a safe assumption that the wound has not healed. In fact, I have found that if you can feel emotional discomfort when recalling an experience, it is still affecting you at an emotional, physiological, or behavioral level, even if only slightly.
After our first hypnosis session, Anna noticed that her eating habits had improved, and she was more relaxed. During the second session, we neutralized the traumatic memory specifically, after which she noticed significant improvements, both behaviorally and emotionally. She even mentioned spending the entire weekend with her mother and became angry only once, compared to previous visits during which it would have happened constantly. Anna’s is another example of how it is more important to address “what’s eating you” than merely “what you’re eating.” It is also possible that her weight gain, and especially her ability to maintain a morbidly obese state for years, provided a form of secondary gain – protection from sexual contact, in her case.
In my next article, I’ll reveal a psychological phenomenon that causes many people to remain stuck with their problems and provide another example from a former weight loss client.