Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Nutrition
One of the day-to-day activities all of us participate in is eating, and it’s no secret that what you eat can have a big impact on the way you feel. As you work to manage the symptoms that may be connected to the trauma of child sexual abuse, you may discover that your brain and body can benefit from learning more about nutrition. In this context, nutrition isn’t just about eating healthy food. It’s also about:
- Increasing the body’s ability to actively digest.
- Choosing specific food groups that have been studied for their effect on mood.
- Strengthening the connection between your brain and body by listening to your body’s signals.
And, because no two survivors are the same, you’ll find that our approach to nutrition encourages you to be aware of how various foods make you feel.
Food and mood are intertwined, a fact that is especially important to survivors because of the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. In addition to mood, food may also contribute to physical symptoms related to childhood trauma, like pain or sleep issues. Above all, it is difficult to do the work of healing if your body isn’t getting what it needs. As you practice acknowledging how you feel (both mentally and physically), you’ll be empowered to adjust what and when you eat according to what works best for you.
How Do I Encourage My Body to “Rest and Digest”?
Ideally your body would be in a state of calm that would allow the various parts of the body to do their assigned tasks to digest food that you’ve eaten, absorbing all the nutrients available and keeping waste moving through your digestive system. However, for a survivor who is caught in a stress response cycle (think fight, flight, or freeze), the body carries oxygen and blood to parts of the body that can aid in responding to a stressor. This means that the digestive system is not able to operate optimally, and any number of digestive challenges may result.
Regularly practicing Mindfulness and other coping techniques will be crucial to helping your body prepare to “rest and digest.” One such practice, mindful eating (described below), may be especially helpful if food or eating is something that initiates a stress response.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is a great practice that requires only that you have food to eat. You can choose to mindfully experience your food by focusing on one (or more) of these prompts:
Be mindful of the tastes, smells, and textures of your food.
For example, is the food hot or cold? Sweet or salty? Bland or spicy? What is the texture of the food? If this is a dish prepared with multiple ingredients, can you identify individual flavors?
Focus on your actions.
For example, focus on the act of chewing, or be mindful of lifting the eating utensil to your mouth. Try putting your utensil down between bites or eating with your non-dominant hand, all of which will slow you down and help you to be more mindful.
Let the task of eating be your focus.
If you tend to eat while you are doing other things (like watching TV or using your phone), try eating without the distraction. Give yourself permission to sit down, relax, and pause all other tasks or distractions while you eat.
Pausing before you eat to appreciate the food in front of you can be a great way to practice Mindfulness. Reflect on the work that went into cultivating the ingredients, or the effort of preparing the food.
What Foods Should I Eat?
There is so much information out there about what we should or shouldn’t eat; it’s especially confusing when one expert’s nutritional advice directly contradicts information from another expert. Add to that the recommendations from friends or family to try this or that fad diet, and nutrition gets confusing in a hurry.
When it comes to nutrition, our advice is that you practice listening to your body. Your body will share a wealth of information with you as you pay attention to its cues. If you feel sluggish, struggle with sleep, or find yourself eating as a response to your emotions, this may be especially helpful advice. You can practice listening to your body by eating when your body tells you its hungry, noticing how you feel, emotionally and physically, before you eat, as you eat, and after you eat.
You may discover that your body feels best when you eat a series of smaller meals throughout the day, or when you replace highly processed foods with fresh foods. You may notice that your mood tanks if you go too long without food, that you make healthier food choices throughout the day when you eat breakfast, or that you have a harder time sleeping when you drink alcohol. Because you are in the best position to know how you feel throughout the day, and to track what and when you eat, having this information can empower you to eat and drink foods that your body will thank you for later. The key is to listen and to let your body tell you what it needs—and when it needs it—to feel healthy.
If you’d like to try experimenting with foods that are known for boosting mood, consider adding more of the following to your diet:
The amino acids in protein help your body produce neurotransmitters that play a role in preventing depression and anxiety. Fish, meat, vegetables, eggs, dairy, nuts, and legumes are all good sources of protein.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids are often referred to as the “good mood fat.” They help hormones and neurotransmitters bind to receptors in the brain—and hormones and neurotransmitters have a lot of influence over mood. You can get more healthy fats in your diet by eating fish, avocados, eggs, olives, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, seaweed, and healthy oils (olive, coconut, and avocado).
Fruits and Vegetables
Our brains and bodies need a variety of vitamins and minerals to operate at optimum. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help you get the nutrients you need. In addition to eating fruits and vegetables of all colors, you may find this list of “powerhouse” foods helpful when shopping for groceries.
Be Patient and Curious
Healing is possible, and it requires hard work to make it happen. Listening to your body and eating according to what your body needs may help you improve your focus and stabilize your mood, both of which will be important to your learning and growth. Remember to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you set new intentions around food. Like with any change in habit or routine, being mindful about what you eat and how it makes you feel takes time, practice, and body kindness.
You will likely go through periods of trial and error as you figure out what foods are best for you and your body’s physical and emotional needs. And that’s okay. Just like with healing, nutrition is a journey—one where you are continually discovering something new about yourself and the foods you eat. As with all our healing practices, we recommend working with your team of health care providers to make sure you are getting the nutrition you need.
Ultimately, becoming more aware of what foods you eat and how they impact your brain and body, can help you practice:
- Acknowledgement by identifying how different foods make you feel (both mentally and physically) and how nutrition may be impacting other symptoms related to your trauma.
- Mindfulness by noticing the taste, textures, and smells of the food you consume, as well as the impact those foods have on your digestion, mood, and overall well-being.
- Aspiration by intentionally choosing to eat foods that will have positive impacts on your brain and body in the future.