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Trauma Bonding with Food: How to Unravel This Toxic Relationship and Begin to Heal

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Hungry child.
Trauma bonding with food often starts in childhood.

“Children, turn to page 25 in your spelling workbooks. Do activities A, B, and C. Work quietly and by yourself. If you have questions, raise your hand, and I’ll come help you,” Mrs. Smith said.

Mrs. Smith was my third-grade teacher. We had moved to another house, this one on A Street. Park Elementary was the school for this year.

My body moved slowly as I opened the desk. I had stayed up too late, I thought to myself. Slowly opening my book, I tried to focus on the pages. I couldn’t read the words. My eyes drooped, and my head felt funny. Then my body shook, jerking back and forth. My head hurt from the rapid movement. My arms and upper body were trembling, and I couldn’t make them stop. I had never experienced this before. As fear filled my mind, I cried. It was terrifying for me to feel my body so out of control. Was I going to die? I wanted this to stop, but I had no control.

My body shook, and I cried deep, loud sobs. Soon my teacher came over to me. She bent down and looked in my face.

“What’s wrong with you?” she said in a voice more tender than I had expected.

I didn’t know what was wrong. My own words surprised me. “I’mmm hungrrry,” I said.

This is an excerpt from my childhood memoir, Bars, Dumps and Other Childhood Hangouts. This book chronicles the first ten years of my life, living with my biological family. In this family, there was extreme poverty, alcohol addiction, abuse, and neglect. One consequence of this life was a frequent lack of food.

This scene seared, in my young mind, a profound belief about food. As a nine-year child, I was terrified. I couldn’t control my body and I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew was that I was starving. The message I got is that food is life. I also needed the emotional protection food gave me to counterbalance the abuse in my life. This scene and many others in my childhood created a silent struggle with food and overeating as an adult. This started a relationship with food that is toxic and abusive. Food now is a source of comfort and pain simultaneously.

One way to view this toxic and abuse connection with food is as a trauma bond.

According to Very Well Mind Health, trauma bonding is:

… the attachment an abused person feels for their abuser, specifically in a relationship with a cyclical pattern of abuse.

The bond is created due to a cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement. After each circumstance of abuse, the abuser professes love, regret, and otherwise tries to make the relationship feel safe and needed for the abused person.

Trauma bonding is a serious psychological form of abuse. However, some of the same characteristics are also present in an unhealthy relationship with food.

This type of trauma bonding uses food as a weapon for self-punishment. Food becomes a means of coping with unresolved emotional pain and stress. It mirrors the dynamics of trauma bonds in abusive relationships. The unhealthy relationship results in guilt, shame, and self-loathing. It’s a vicious cycle that affects our physical and mental health. Our self-worth and self-love are diminished, and we often feel powerless to control our unhealthy craving for food.

Characteristics of a trauma bond with food include:

1. Emotional Dependence: Just as with abusive relationships, individuals with a trauma bond to food may rely on it for emotional support, comfort, or a sense of control in the face of life’s challenges.

2. Cyclic Patterns: Food can serve as both a source of solace and self-punishment. This creates a cyclical response of overeating or under-eating as when faced with emotional triggers. Binge-eating, followed by guilt and purging, can become a regular pattern.

3. Self-Blame and Shame: These individuals often experience guilt and shame for their eating habits, believing they lack discipline or self-control, even if their relationship with food is rooted in deeper emotional issues.

4. Isolation: Abusive relationships can often result in social isolation. This is also true of a harmful relationship with food. Those with a trauma bond to food may avoid social situations involving food. This comes from a need to hide their struggles, leading to social withdrawal.

5. Dependency on Food for Coping: Food becomes a primary coping mechanism for dealing with past trauma or emotional pain. This makes it difficult to find healthier alternatives.

Changing our relationship with food is much like breaking free from any other abusive or toxic relationships. First, we need to recognize the abuse is happening. Then decide what we can do about it. It’s also important to understand why we have a toxic relationship with food. How did that relationship start? Looking at our food stories, like the one I shared at the beginning of this blog, can help in this process.

Breaking free from an abusive food relationship is a journey of self-discovery, healing, and resilience. It requires support, self-compassion, and a commitment to rebuilding a healthy, balanced connection with food and oneself. Professional help, such as counseling or coaching, is often crucial to unravel the underlying emotional issues. Support from loved ones and a focus on self-compassion is a key component of this journey. Seeing our relationship with food as a trauma bond may be a new way to look at our weight issues, but it is important to recognize the power food has in our life in order to change that relationship.


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