About 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience a trauma in their lives. And while only 7 to 8 percent of the population will develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point, the negative effects of trauma can lead to other mental health concerns. The link between trauma and eating disorders is being looked at more and more as the number of people diagnosed with eating disorders continues to rise.

Types of trauma

Trauma comes in many forms.

  • Witnessing a brutal murder
  • Having experienced physical abuse firsthand
  • Being involved in a war
  • Experiencing a natural disaster
  • Having traumatic medical complications
  • Rape, molestation and sexual assault
  • Being in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship

These traumatic experiences can create a sense of turmoil and isolation. Over time, the effects of a trauma can affect you in drastic and life-altering ways. For instance, if you are affected by a trauma, you may find yourself avoiding triggers — people, places and things that remind you of your trauma. To avoid feeling upset by the trauma, you may start to:

  • Block out negative thoughts
  • Develop eating disorder behaviors
  • Engage in self-destructive behaviors (substance use, cutting, promiscuity)
  • Break away from relationships
  • Seek solitude

The relationship between trauma and eating disorders

Individuals who experience any form of trauma have a higher likelihood of developing an eating disorder compared to those who did not suffer a traumatic event. The earlier age at which the traumatic event occurs, the greater the outcome can be due to the state of the individual’s brain organization and development, hence why children and teenagers to experience a traumatic event have a higher likelihood of being affected by this trauma in adulthood.

Eating disorders: An unhealthy coping skill

When an individual experiences a trauma, they may start to develop eating disorder behaviors. The eating disorder behaviors may start as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotions the individual is experiencing.

  • Avoiding meals
  • Extreme overeating
  • Over-exercising
  • Purging or vomiting after meals
  • Cutting out food groups entirely

Understand that eating disorders do not always develop as a way to control one’s food or body. They often develop because people find that they can use food (consumption or restriction) as a way to manage and hide feelings.

So how do we fix things? In order to address the eating disorder behavior, the trauma must be addressed as well. If the trauma is not processed in therapy, any nutritional or behavioral interventions will be less likely to be effective.

Here’s an example:

Veronica experiences a trauma at a young age. She develops a pattern of self-criticism that leads to guilt and shame. To silence this voice, Veronica leans on what she can control in her life, such as her relationship with food. She starts by cutting out carbs. Then she guts out all dairy products. Soon, she is eating a very limited number of foods in very small quantities each day. The eating disorder takes center stage and Veronica begins to feel hopeless and very depressed. As a result, her identify becomes synonymous with the eating disorder.

Over time, Veronica and others end of burying their emotions through their eating habits to the point they may completely forget why their eating disorder began in the first place. In treatment, folks work to:

  • Recognize the underlying trauma
  • Develop coping strategies to deal with the unwanted thoughts associated with the traumatic events

Many eating disorder treatment specialists specialize in treating trauma and a full recovery is highly possible.

Dissociation, trauma and eating disorders

Individuals with eating disorders often often report “out of body” experiences, particularly in the context of a traumatic event. A typical adaptive response to experiencing a trauma is splitting off from the self, which is known as dissociation. The function of dissociation is to separate oneself from any thoughts or emotions associated with the pain caused by the traumatic event.

In a sense, the traumatic act is happening, but the individual is observing the act being done to some other body rather than their own; the person has an ability to split off and dissociate with oneself even when the trauma is ongoing.

When an individual experiences dissociation, it can affect how they view their physical appearances in terms of body image and weight. They may see themselves different compared to how someone else views them. They may not notice how underweight they are, that their dental enamel is eroding from their teeth, that their hair is falling out or that they have scabs on the back of their knuckles.

Loneliness following a trauma

Loneliness is a universal symptom that nearly everyone struggling with eating disorders experiences. Loneliness is also strongly connected with past traumatic experiences. Loneliness occurs regardless if individuals live alone and have little interaction with others, or are surrounded by loved ones such as friends, family, a spouse and children. Often this loneliness has been present for as long as the individual can remember, and their eating disorder has been one way they have learned to cope with the pain that comes from it.

Healing from trauma and eating disorders

To summarize, eating disorders are a way to attempt to escape the pain of a trauma. Engaging in eating disorder behaviors, whether restricting, purging or binging, forces one to disconnect from oneself, and to disconnect from what the body wants and needs.

Eating disorders are a disease of disconnection. In addition to helping the self disconnect from the part of the individual that is carrying the pain, the eating disorder unintentionally perpetuates the loneliness and eventually becomes the individual’s companion.

Every day, we help individuals recover from trauma and eating disorders. Our experienced clinicians work to validate each patient’s experiences, to help them create a life based on values and meaning. If you’re looking for healing, please reach out for help.

Related Articles on Center for Discovery:

Source: National Center for PTSD