“Fat” may be an attempt to describe a change or a challenge in proprioception.
Proprioception is your sixth sense- it’s how you know where your body is in space. Take your hand and place it behind your hand. How do you know it’s there? You can’t see/hear/feel/touch/taste/smell it. And yet, you know where it is in relationship to your head. That’s proprioception! Some of us have better smell than others; some have better proprioception. An Olympic gymnast who can twist & flip & land on a tiny balance beam has amazing proprioception. If you tend to bump into things or be “clutzy” your proprioception may not be as strong.
Proprioception affects how we perceive our body size. When you get novocaine, your tongue feels very large inside your mouth. Your tongue size doesn’t change but your perception of it does! This is because novocaine temporarily impairs proprioception .. making your tongue feel up to 30% rounder!
Your senses are altered by stress (i,e, your vision may get more acute & you may lose peripheral vision.) Similarly, proprioception is altered by stress (Senol et al 2019).
To me, it is disorienting, to feel like the boundaries of my body are like an ice cube melting.. I feel vulnerable & off-kilter. It’s hard to articulate (“I feel fat, I feel small). Feeling disoriented increases my desire to feel in control of my body. In that vulnerable space, It’s painful to be told it doesn’t exist. Just because an observer can not see your body shift does not necessarily mean that you are making it up! Your brain might be registering a confusing change in perception. Learning to identify that & what it means can be a powerful tool in recovery.
Why does it occur?
One theory on why a shift in proprioception occurs is that it is a protective mechanism. Your body perceives itself in a fragile state so it draws a bubble around itself as sort of a boundary so you will not get hurt. Your perception of the bubble is designed to protect your fragile body from getting too close to something.. or someone that might hurt you. Recognizing your brain/body’s attempt to protect you can help you have compassion on yourself in the midst of a confusing/disorientating experience.
When does it occur?
For some people, very often. Sometimes it co-occurs with another challenge that your body has.. like issues with feeling pain. Some experience it under stress or after punctuated activities like exercise. It’s also triggered by weight gain or weight loss, including catabolism/starvation-the state your body is in during anorexia. (So this might be part of why someone “feels fat” even when they are undernourished).
What does it mean?
It may mean that some part of your body is attempting to protect you. That is a valuable signal to learn to interpret. You can learn to ask why and begin to understand what it means for you? Your body may be overstimulated, escalated as a result of stress/trauma, etc. Those are great questions to ask later. In the moment, the why is not as important. Your body is asking for physical self-care.
What can I do in the moment?
Many interventions in the moment involve pressure – wrapping yourself in a blanket, wearing a pressure or weighted vest, squeezing yourself in a small space between 2 objects. Maybe ask your body what it wants right now… that impulse to curl up into a ball, go upside down, jump up & down, or put on a heavy coat may be exactly how your body is trying to right itself. Receptors on the edges of your body are trying to figure out where they are right now and giving them input will help your body find balance again. As you find balance in your body, you’ll be better able to find balance in your mind. In the long run, practices like Yoga have been shown to increase proprioception.
How do I respond when someone says “I feel fat”?
Family/friends/providers may hesitate to respond to “I feel fat”, fearing it will affirm disordered thinking. Actually, engaging productively can be an incredible way to be present in a vulnerable time, encourage body awareness, and provide coping skills.
It’s possible to validate a sensation without agreeing with body size. (I.e. “That sounds disorientating, help me understand… what does that sensation feel like in your body?”) Focusing on body awareness, can help ground or direct attention. But it may be a challenge! Don’t be surprised if someone is unable to articulate sensations!
Notice nonverbals. Is the person curling in a ball? Wrapping their clothing tighter? Rocking? Moving? or Pressing into a couch? If so, their body may be using pressure/movement to find equilibrium. Encourage this willingness to respond to their body’s needs! Offer tools to augment it (I.e. weighted blanket, pressure vest). You can also offer an explanation like this:
“Sometimes when we feel vulnerable, scared, or overwhelmed, our body creates an imaginary bubble around us as a way to protect us from getting hurt and that makes us feel larger than we are. I can see right now how you’re pulling your knees into your chest. That’s good because you’re doing exactly what your body needs right now. By squeezing yourself in a ball, you’re creating your own bubble to tell your body it’s protected. And as you show your body that you can protect it, you may begin to feel more at ease. You can give yourself more protection by wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket that will provide more pressure like this one. Would you like to try it?”
After the person deescalates, check back in and debrief. How did they experience the tool? Was it helpful? If not, no worries, try a different one next time. Every time is an opportunity to be curious. It’s a chance to learn what best benefits our individual bodies in different moments.