Breaking the Cycle : Overcoming Overeating after a Disaster

By Darine Ammache, Clinical Psychologist


There are many factors that play a vital role in the existence of overeating. These factors range from cognitive, emotional, social, economic, to cultural. In addition, the organoleptic properties of food are basic aspects to take into consideration when trying to understand eating behaviors and their impact on health.

After a traumatic event, some people may experience changes in their brain chemicals which affect their psychological state and lead to increased food cravings. Additionally, many people turn to food as a coping mechanism to face their psychological fears and problems. PTSD symptoms and depression can also contribute to overeating.

It is explained that after a life-death experience, people might have an uncontrollable desire to eat or what is known as an open appetite. This is explained in light of a survival instinct or a motivation for the love of life. This love for life pushes us to require more food and is a symbolic sign of an attachment to life through food and at times, sex.

Approximately 80% of the study sample reported exposure to some form of trauma, and 66% of trauma-exposed samples reported at least one lifetime PTSD symptom. Eight percent of the cohort met the criteria for binge eating. The prevalence of binge eating increased with the number of lifetime PTSD symptoms, especially with women (6–7 symptoms) who are more than twice as likely to binge eat as women without PTSD symptoms or trauma (PR = 2.68, 95% CI: 2.41, 2.97).

PTSD symptoms were more strongly associated with binge eating when symptoms began at a younger age.The association between PTSD and food addiction did not differ significantly by trauma type. PTSD symptoms were associated with increased prevalence of binge eating in this cohort of women. Strategies to reduce obesity associated with PTSD may require psychological and behavioral interventions that address food dependence and use of food to cope with stress.

Additionally, when we experience a natural disaster and become traumatized, depressed, or experience any other negative effects, some of our brain chemicals shift, which has an impact on our psychological condition.We may experience physical changes as a result of these alterations, which in turn causes us to crave or need particular meals or consume more food.This is a result of hormonal or chemical changes.Premenstrual symptoms are an example of hormonal alterations.These findings imply that Ghrelin -the hunger hormone- contributes to increased food desires and behavior-driven eating.The effectiveness of stress reduction techniques for restoring normal cortisol responses and preventing further weight gain has to be studied.

On a psychological and social level, there are emotional eaters, who appear in emotionally charged situations like the death or loss of a dear one, and occasionally the urge to feel comfortable.People use food as a coping strategy to deal with their psychological anxieties and issues.The urge to eat after a natural disaster is also psychological.People’s need to feel alive and their devotion to life increases their hunger and encourages them to eat more.Cravings are intense, specific, and hedonic reactions to food which most young individuals say that they frequently experience. Although they are closely related to taste, cravings are not synonymous with increased intake. Cravings are mostly identified with high and dense content which is low in protein and fiber.

On the same note, there is the “emotional eating,” and it is defined by people turning to it as a source of consolation and comfort during difficult times (Spoor, 2014).Alternatively, a person’s love of food can also be a source of happiness and comfort for them, giving them a sense of normalcy and stability in the wake of trauma (Altschul, 2013).As a result, there is a complex relationship between the love of food and trauma that includes both psychological and physiological components (Smith, 2017).

Most people will eventually recover from a crisis and resume their previous functioning levels.Many people, however, will initially suffer upsetting thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, and might engage in dangerous activities to help them cope.It is difficult for anyone to understand or accept traumatic situations.It makes sense that many kids are scared and perplexed.Fortunately, most of them are remarkably resilient, even those who have experienced trauma.By listening and providing honest, dependable, and encouraging responses, parents, teachers, and other loving individuals may assist.

Most people will eventually recover from a crisis and resume their previous level of functioning. Others might develop psychiatric disorders, like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The repercussions and consequences can either appear instantly or subsequently.

Common reactions in adults after a disaster:

  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Sadness, depression, hyperactivity, irritability, or anger
  • Feelings of numbness
  • A lack of energy or constant exhaustion
  • Lack of appetite or continuous eating
  • Trouble in concentrating or feeling confused
  • Social isolation, reduced, or restricted activities
  • The thought of unreciprocated reactions
  • Headaches, stomachaches, or other body pains
  • Misuse of alcohol, tobacco, drugs or prescription medications

Helpful steps for adults after a disaster:

  • Eat, hydrate, exercise, and get rest on a regular basis; taking care of your body reduces the negative effects of stress.
  • Avoid using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs to manage distressing emotions; these substances often make things harder on the long-run and can cause problems.
  • Find healthy ways to relax, such as breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, calming self-talk,and soothing music.
  • Engage in fun and restoring activities, including exercise, hobbies, and social activities.
  • Keep informed about new information and developments. Use credible sources of information to avoid speculation and rumors.
  • Limit exposure to television and social media content about the disaster; overexposure can increase distress.
  • Stay connected with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues to give and receive support. Helping one another aids in healing.
  • Learn what local health care and other resources are available; use and share this information to help yourself and others.
  • Remind yourself and others that it is normal to have many different feelings as well as “good days” and “bad days” as a natural part of recovery.
  • Seek assistance from a health care professional if your distress remains high after several weeks, you are having persistent trouble functioning at work or home, or thinking about hurting yourself or someone else.

Finally, research indicates that there is a complex interaction between a love of eating and trauma. Traumatic experiences can have a significant effect on people, altering their hormones and brain chemistry, changing their food desires, and frequently leading to the use of food as a coping mechanism. This can occasionally lead to a connection with food that resembles an addiction, especially in people who are dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Nutt, 2011).


  • Altschul, A. (2013). Food and trauma: the complex relationship. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1(1), 1-7.

. American psychiatric Association, Joshua C. Morganstein, M.D.November 2019,

. JAMA Psychiatry, November 1, 2015, National Library of Medicine,

. National Library of Medicine, Food cravings and energy regulation: the characteristics of craved foods and their relationship with eating behaviors and weight change during 6 months of dietary energy restriction, June 26, 2007:

  • Nutt, D. J. (2011). Trauma, addiction, and the role of the brain. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 23(4), 410-415.

. Obesity silver spring, 25 April 2017, Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight,

  • Smith, M. J. (2017). The role of trauma in the development of addictive behavior. Addictive Behaviors, 72, 76-81.
  • Spoor, M. T. (2014). Emotional eating: a review of the literature. Eating Behaviors, 15(3), 397-404.

Leave a Reply