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Eating Disorders and Trauma

eating disorders and traumaEating disorders sometimes grow from the fertile soil of the culture. As people see images, day in and day out, of lovely people with prominent chest bones and legs as small as toothpicks, they become convinced that the path to beauty can only be traveled by the slim, and they may grow desperate to shed pounds in order to match the ideals of the communities they live in. There are times, however, when eating disorders arise from completely different triggers. For some, eating disorders develop as a response to a terrible trauma. By taking out their distress on their bodies, these people hope to soothe their troubled minds. Unfortunately, the results can be catastrophic, and unless the issue is dealt with, the scars can be long-lasting.

Defining Trauma

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration pulled together a group of experts and asked them to develop one concise definition for trauma that could apply to most, if not all, people. This is the explanation the group came up with: “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” The phrase is dense, but in essence, experts suggest that trauma is personal, and that it consists of enduring an event that seemed either physically or emotionally damaging, and the memory of that event lingers and causes suffering. Almost anything could be traumatic if it met these parameters, but according to experts, there are some episodes of damage that seem to be most closely linked with the development of eating disorders. For example, in a study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, researchers found that disordered eating tended to follow these types of events:

  • Rough transitions from one school to another
  • The end of a relationship, either for the person or for the person’s family
  • Deaths of family members
  • Illnesses

For some people, these kinds of difficulties wouldn’t prompt a turn to eating disorders, but it’s clear that trauma is personal and some people struggle with issues that others might not have even thought about. There are some problems, however, that tend to cause misery for anyone who endures them, and these traumatic episodes can sometimes leave scarring that leads to an eating disorder. Sexual abuse, for example, has long been linked with eating disorders, and the National Eating Disorders Association states that about 30 percent of people with an eating disorder have been sexually abused at some point during their lives. This isn’t the kind of trauma people can work through on their own, in most cases, and some endure so much damage that the eating disorder blossoms as they struggle to cope.

girl with trauma looking out windowA Broken Coping Mechanism

People who go through terrible experiences aren’t doomed to develop eating disorders. In fact, according to an article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, trauma is usually considered a risk factor for disordered eating, but people with these conditions often have some other marker or risk that’s also in play. However, it’s easy to see why disordered eating would seem like an appropriate response to a terrible situation. People who go through a traumatic experience often feel helpless and hopeless, as though things are completely outside their sphere of control. The sense of victimhood can linger, and it can make people feel vulnerable to future attacks. Eating disorders can provide people with a false sense of power, as their disordered eating allows them to wrest control back from outside forces. As they change their bodies, they might feel just a little powerful and just a little hopeful, for the first time in ages, and those feelings can serve to lock an eating disorder in place. Similarly, some disordered eating patterns are comforting. People who binge eat, for example, often report feeling a sense of amnesia and sedation during their episodes. Their minds are blank while their bodies are moving, and this kind of respite from difficult memories might be incredibly valuable to people who have been attacked and who are struggling with their recall of the episode. People with sexual abuse issues may also have their own reasons for delving into eating disorders. For these people, the attack took place because they were developing and growing, and they may believe that losing weight can make them more childlike and less approachable as a target for abuse. By losing weight, they can strip their bodies of hips, breasts and other sexual attributes, and they may believe this can keep them safe. Others gain weight through binge eating in the hopes that they’ll also be less attractive and less likely to be abused. It’s a form of self-protection, at the cost of the person’s physical and mental health.

Other Factors

People who have been through a traumatic experience can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People like this may:

  • Experience vivid flashbacks, either while awake or while asleep
  • Avoid places that remind them of the experience
  • Feel guilt, depression or anger
  • Startle easily
  • Sleep poorly

These symptoms might be soothed, in part, by eating disorders as the eating patterns can give people a false sense of control. They may not be able to keep their minds from cycling and dwelling on the event, but they can control their bodies and the way they look. Trauma can also lead to other poor behaviors that could make a person feel much worse. For example, in a study in the journal Eating Behaviors, researchers found links between childhood trauma and self-cutting behaviors, substance abuse and alcohol abuse. These problems can ride alongside an eating disorder, and they can make the disordered eating seem almost impossible to control. The impulsivity that governs disordered eating, self-mutilation and addiction is hard to overcome without help.

Moving Forward

Eating disorders built on a foundation of trauma won’t resolve on their own. Until that terrible experience is worked through and the pain is removed, the urge to medicate through eating might always be present, and it can keep people from getting better and moving forward with their lives in a healthy and robust way. A comprehensive treatment program can help. Here, people can learn more about the links between eating disorders and trauma, and they can get the help they’ll need to work through their past and focus on the future. This is the kind of help we provide at Futures of Palm Beach, and we’d like to help you. Please call to talk to one of our admissions specialists about your situation, and learn more about the targeted therapies we can use to get your life back on track. The call is free and we’re always available. Please call now.