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Stressful Experiences Linked to Childhood Obesity

We are frequently reminded by the media that, in the western world, obesity in children has increased at an alarming rate since around the 1970s; worse, this rate of increase is expected to keep on growing for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in the United States, for example, one in six children are now medically classified as overweight or obese.

The reasons that children become obese can be contributed to by both genetic and environmental factors. In the past, research into the causes of childhood obesity have tended to focus on the balance between the child’s intake of calories versus his/her level of physical exercise; in this article, however, I intend to focus on other environmental causes; more specifically, the effects of stress.

The link between stress and childhood obesity has only been examined by psychologists since relatively recently. Some of the main findings from studies that have been conducted have been as follows :

  1. research by the psychologists Huffman et al. (1980) found that children growing up in one-parent families were more likely to be obese than those who grow up in a secure nuclear family (although this by no means implies a simple, direct, cause and effect relationship; it could, for example, be that one-parent families tend to have less money which in turn causes more stress which, in its own turn, makes it more likely the children in the family will become obese (due to a reliance on cheap, junk food, for instance)
  2. the researcher, Rhee (2008), found that children from dysfunctional families were more likely to be obese than were children from stable homes.
  3. children who suffered neglect were more likely than non-neglected children to be obese (Lissau, Sørensen TI.,1994)
  4. children who live in homes where at least one other has mental or physical health problems were more likely to be obese than those children who did not; children who grew up in households where money worries were substantial were more likely to be obese than their more financially privileged contemporaries
  5. Research conducted by Mutlu et al.(2016) conducted a study involving 314 individuals, half of whom were obese and half of whom were non-obese. All of these individuals were required to fill out the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ). The results of the study were that 68.8 % of the obese individuals reported having experienced childhood trauma in contrast to only 38.8% of the non-abuse group reporting such experiences. Therefore, the researchers were able to conclude that obesity in adulthood is strongly associated with the experience of early life trauma.


The main theories for the link between stressful experiences and obesity in childhood are as follows :

  1. Booth et al. (2014) have suggested that there is a direct physiological link between stress and obesity, namely that stress causes an increase of CORTISOL in the body and this, in turn, adversely interferes with the METABOLIC PROCESS
  2. stress leads to poor eating habits (for example, due to ‘comfort eating’, craving carbohydrates etc.) and lowers physical activity levels (for example,  due to poor motivation to exercise connected to low mood/reduced will-power)


The implications of these findings for treatment are clear: by addressing factors such as those referred to above, and, thereby, reducing stress levels in the members of problematic families, it may well follow that childhood obesity levels can be reduced.


People who have suffered childhood trauma, and, as a result, have gone on to develop mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD) have, statistically, worse PHYSICAL health, on average, than those who are mentally well. One reason for this, although there are many) is that both the sufferer and their doctors can be so focused upon treating their emotional difficulties that their physical health tends to take second place and is consequently rather neglected.

One problem that the psychiatric conditions mentioned above can lead to is DYSFUNCTIONAL EATING BEHAVIOR (or, to put it rather more simply, over-eating; for example, what is commonly referred to as ‘COMFORT EATING’). As this often leads to obesity, significant physical health problems may develop (eg heart disease).

Indeed, in the USA it is estimated that up to 325,000 deaths per year are linked to obesity (Allison et al., 1999).

On top of the serious physical problems, it may cause. obesity can aggravate mental health conditions by setting up a vicious circle. For example, the depressed person eats more and more to soothe his/her inner turmoil and becomes obese as a result – because of the prejudice which exists within society, being obese lowers his/her self-esteem and confidence; this, in turn, leads to greater feelings of depression which leads to even greater unhealthy eating-behaviour, and so the self-damaging cycle continues…


Not infrequently, the problem becomes one of being unable to resist the temptation to binge eat. Indeed, it is under consideration that BINGE EATING DISORDER might be officially entered into DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists) as a psychiatric disorder, not least due to the fact that 40% of those who binge eat become obese (Johnson et al, 1996).


The primary requirement for those who wish to control their eating behaviour and lose weight involves MODIFYING BEHAVIOURS. Hypnotherapy can be of use by:

– motivating the individual to make beneficial dietary changes

– motivating the individual to monitor their eating (a technique which helps weight reduction) by keeping a diary of what they eat, for example

– motivating the individual to take some moderate exercise

– increasing the individual’s self-control

– helping to control eating desire stimuli (e.g. by motivating the individual to eat in the same place every day)

– helping to address distorted thinking which leads to excessive eating (eg irrational and faulty belief systems)

– helping to address the emotional dysregulation  (uncontrolled emotions) which can lead to over-eating/binge eating

– reducing the person’s levels of stress and anxiety which may have been causing the over-eating/binge eating

– improving the individual’s self-esteem (low self-esteem often underlies the causes of over-eating/binge eating).


Stradling et al. (1998) carried out research which suggested HYPNOSIS FOCUSING ON STRESS REDUCTION has a significantly beneficial effect upon weight loss. Furthermore, research that was conducted by Davis and Dawson (1980) found that the use of AUDIO RECORDINGS for SELF-HYPNOSIS was effective in helping people to CONTINUE to lose weight (this is very important, because, often, people lose weight at first but then quickly put it back on again).

Overall, most research has suggested that a hypnosis component in a weight loss program helps with weight loss.

  • Allison et al. (1999). Annual deaths attributable to obesity in the United States.JAMA. 1999 Oct 27;282(16):1530-8.
  • Booth et al. (2014). Detrimental and protective fat: body fat distribution and its relation to metabolic disease.Hormone Molecular Biology and Clinical Investigation.Volume 17: Issue 1. Published online: 28 Mar 2014
  • Davis, S. & Dawson, J. G. (1980). Hypnotherapy for weight control. Psychological Reports,
    46, 311314
  • Huffman et al. (1980) Parenthood—A Contributing Factor to Childhood Obesity. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Jul; 7(7): 2800–2810. Published online 2010 Jun 30. doi: 10.3390/ijerph7072800. PMCID: PMC2922726. PMID: 20717539
  • Johnson et al. (2000) What is a binge? The influence of amount, duration, and loss of control criteria on judgments of binge eating. International Journal Of Eating Disorders.<471::AID-EAT13>3.0.CO;2-8
  • Lissau, Sørensen TI.(1994) Parental neglect during childhood and increased risk of obesity in young adulthood. Lancet. 1994 Feb 5;343(8893):324-7.
  • Rhee (2008). Childhood Overweight and the Relationship between Parent Behaviors, Parenting Style, and Family Functioning. Sage Journals. First published January 1.
  • Stradling, J., et al. (1998) Controlled trial of hypnotherapy for weight loss in patients with obstructive sleep apnoea. Int J Obes 22, 278–281 (1998).

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).




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