Understanding How Trauma Impacts Eating Can Help Us Cope With The Covid-19 Crisis
In times of crisis, as in any other time, it can help to remember that food and eating have a more complex role in health and metabolism than just providing nutrients.
Of course nutrients matter. And what we eat by way of vitamins, carbs, antioxidants, probiotics and so on can have specific effects in the body. At the same time, food is more than nutrients, eating is more than a means of nutrient transfer, and you could be missing out on the health benefits of food and eating if you’ve not had chance to consider this wider reach.
Writing about non-nutrient aspects of food and eating felt timely as Covid-19 means we are plunged (differently) into powerlessness via disrupted routines, loss of income, fear, violence, scarcity. Entering a supermarket became a health risk. Pervasive uncertainty, isolation and abuse are among the issues that can translate into feeling newly confused around food, or heighten your existing struggle. Paying attention to food doesn’t touch underlying factors, but it might help you cope —
If you’ve been without food before, or know trauma, and you feel like you’re freaking out now that makes total sense. Your memory of surviving just came back to save you. Similarly, if you feel in scary new emotional territory with food, maybe you’re having a trauma response to your new situation.
Here’s the thing. Let’s say you’re hungry and I offer you a food that’s regularly eaten in some parts of the world but you consider it weird or foul-tasting. What happens to your hunger? Something, right? If we were wired simply to eat calories when we felt hungry, so that food was merely a means of energy input and we were basically energy-burning machines, we wouldn’t have this aversion.
But we’re breathing, healing, idiosyncratic, loving, creative, grieving human beings. Yes, I need food, but don’t teach me to think of my body, my glorious messy desiring self, or yours, as a machine.
What we need from food and eating to support wellbeing in times of crisis is what we always need.
Safeness has a beneficial metabolic effect. Living with insecurity (e.g. due to Covid) kicks off a different metabolic cascade and can tip us over to trauma-brain giving us sense of frenzied high alert, andor inability to make decisions, andor feeling spaced out.
When we don’t feel safe at a deep, primal, level our everyday reasoning goes feral, leading to unwise actions and flawed decision-making. Our beliefs can spiral to mayhem. Our own behaviour can become a source of confusion and fear as we feel out of control — in our eating, in how we speak to people, in managing our mental state.
Safety around food includes food safety — as in make sure it’s not toxic to you.
And crucially, what it takes to feel psychologically safe around food can mean a whole heap more depending on our life experiences.
For instance, low stocks in the shops will mean different things to us depending on any history with food scarcity and our current relationship with food.
Having an eating disorder adds another dimension to the challenge. Just so we’re clear, your needs still exist, the challenges you deal with don’t get downgraded because other people are also newly struggling. It’s not a contest — or if it is, there’s another way. A way that lets you put the troops of guilt, shame and self-blame, in reserve, and sign up with the peace builders instead.
If you have lived with the fear of hunger, andor the legacy of trauma, you may already have strategies in place for coping with Covid. Fabulous!
On the other hand, you might be wildly triggered like whoa, what’s going on here? Hoarding, feeling selfish, terrified, unable to make decisions, an inexplicable mood slump, zoned out.
How we feel and think is contingent on our environment. When what you’re used to is suddenly disrupted your body signals and emotions can go haywire. A new trauma response, or old memory being triggered, can explain why your reaction seems in a different league to other people’s, or your usual.
‘Triggered’ means that the memory of previous deprivation, or other alarm, that is stored in your body is activated. The body sensations and emotions you’re feeling got stored up before, you experience them now as you did then — the feelings are here but belong to the past. Sure, they’re data that’s personal to you and that’s valuable. Data from body signals is really useful — but it doesn’t follow that our body signals always a reliable reflection of current empirical reality. Instead of ascribing them face value, we can notice, pause, assess their relevance, and then act.
All being well, memories get stored in an orderly way and we can retrieve them by choice and recount the event as a coherent story. Experiencing danger, terror and powerlessness can cause memory of the moment to be stored in fragments. It’s not filed away neatly but laid down in a haphazard way, as a jumble of disconnected sensory input without a narrative time line, without words attached.
When details get lodged in this unprocessed way they are triggered by a similar feeling, event, item, smell. Result — by unconscious association your system is flooded with a whole load of disturbing raw affect (sensations, undefined emotion) from the past.
The lid just flew off Pandora’s Box without you lifting a finger. This has real-time physiological, psychological and spiritual impact.
Such as, you might notice that you’re acting out of character, or that your thoughts or emotions mean you feel like a box of frogs. Utter despair lands out of nowhere. You try and reason with yourself — see, a full store cupboard, an online delivery scheduled for a fortnight — but the panic stays. It is obstinately resistant to Getting a Grip, or Keeping Things in Perspective. That’s because it’s stored in a way that reason won’t reach. The fact that the shift is inexplicable adds to distress: we can feel like we’re losing our mind. Understanding what’s happening as an activated memory or trauma response can help dampen the overwhelm.
Trauma is why rescue dogs flinch at very particular signs: if they were kicked by someone in white trainers (sneakers) they tremble at every stranger wearing white trainers.
The ‘white trainer danger’ signal is stored in body memory and instantaneously retrieved. Dogs have a reason to behave as they do. And so do we — though, like traumatised rescue animals, we might not be consciously aware of all the events behind our behaviours or body impulses.
They might growl at you, the responsible, doting owner, when you first wear white trainers because now they’ve been dealt a confusion of conflicting information from their body: unsafe/safe. Confusion itself feels unsafe, scary, they growl because they are threatened. The antidote is to create safety and help them make sense of things in the present.
Same thing for us: confusion plays havoc with our rational brain as it goes into overdrive scanning for familiar patterns, something to anchor our comprehension. Chaos will always be with us, we live with it by making meaning, bringing order. A key way we do this is by naming phenomena. Finding a term that sits right with you, like ‘disconnect’ ‘old memory’ ‘trauma brain’ and using it to describe your experience will help you slow the frenzy. No blame required.
Even a broad understanding of ‘ok, this is disconnect’ can help us feel calm again by removing the sense of disorientation we get when we don’t understand what’s happening. This knowledge allows us to intepret our intense response so we’re no longer at the mercy of this nameless invading menace, we’re dealing with disconnect. Dialing down the threat restores access to our rational brain. (Grounding techniques can help with this too).
In short, making sense of things makes us more able to regain a sense of control (which can reduce anxiety and may also help with chronic pain).
And what will reach the part that’s gone into disconnect isn’t a list of facts, it’s love. Love delivered as understanding, soothing, compassion, explanation. Back to calming the frightened, barking dog, yes? You approach carefully, get eye contact, act from your grounded core, demonstrate it’s safe, bring them back to the present. Doing this means you also help them integrate the old memory, so that in time the trainers could completely lose their trigger status.
(Psst, while we’re on the topic, here’s a great short story about a rescue dog, healing and trauma.)
The part in you that’s just wedged the firewall between feeling and thinking is the part that switched you to survival.
If it’s a historical part it made sure you hung in and it’s ready to pull you through again. It’s not giving up without a fight. She/they/he/ze/zer is younger than you, and old before their time. Be with them. Thank them. Witness them. Explain that wow did they do a great job and they got you to here, where you’re all grown now and they can rest. You’ve got their back. Sure, this is a tough one. But it’s for you to deal with, not them. And keep on explaining. Soothing. Reassuring. That’s the food work now. Joining the dots. Not to repeat that ‘it makes no sense’ ‘others have it harder.’
For sound nutrition, you really don’t need to compare how you measure up against anyone else. Honestly.
And if there’s other trigggers around food — bugs, spoilage, an overwhelm of new tastes, being surrounded by food, having ‘unsafe’ foods close by, feeling dissatisfied — meet this with a firm gentle too. Explain. Reassure. Stay (or get back to the) present.
Meaning registers at a visceral level. If not being able to get the exact brand and size and flavour and expiry date of yogurt puts you in flat spin, that’s because you don’t feel safe. When scarcity means ‘unsafe’ your system can erupt a trauma volcano. Because food and eating involve more than nutrients, they involve memory, relational safety, identity, self-worth, trust and dignity too.
You could try to calm and ground yourself before shopping, cooking, eating.
Self-blame is optional (if you’ve got a lot on your plate then you can definitely manage without it).
Thing is, you wouldn’t be freaking out if it didn’t make sense to some part of you. It’s just that it’s not the most helpful response any more, because now isn’t then. Same sensation, different circumstances. You are older. You survived whatever it was. You got this. Same thing: comfort and reassure. Don’t beat yourself up. Get practical. Breathe. Dance. Cry. Breathe. In. Breathe. Out. Repeat. Grieve. Breathe.
You see, nutrients are a vital part of the food and health puzzle, but they’re not all of it.
Meaning matters too, and so does meaning-making.
And so do you.