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Trauma and Eating Disorders Signs, Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery | Eating Disorder Treatment


and Eating Disorders

Signs, Symptoms,

Treatment, and


Eating Disorder


Eating Disorders and Trauma

Eating disorders are known to affect 30 million individuals in the United States and carry the highest mortality rate out of all mental illnesses. Eating disorders stem from a need to have self-control as the majority of individuals with an eating disorder lack control in most aspects of their life.  The need to manage food, weight and body shape is more about control rather than food itself and as a result extreme unhealthy behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, diuretic and laxative abuse, excessive exercise and binging are practiced in an effort to mask feelings and past experiences such as trauma and abuse. According to The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-V) the most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. The two other disorders in the DSM are known as avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED). Although each of these disorders may differ by their signs, symptoms, and presentations, they all have one thing is common: similar underlying triggers.  Many underlying factors contributing to eating disorders include low self-esteem, major life transitions such as divorce or relocating to a new school, poor coping skills, a perfectionistic personality, substance abuse, poor parental relationships and bullying. A common trigger occurring with eating disorders that behavioral health specialists are seeing today is trauma. Some studies have shown that 60-70 percent of individuals seeking residential treatment for their eating disorder experienced some form of trauma in the past.

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Emotional and psychological trauma results from a severe distressing event that affects an individual’s capacity to cope and feel safe on a daily basis compromising an individual’s ability to function in everyday life. Feelings of helplessness, fear, anger, insecurity, and confusion can often times dominate a person’s mind and emotional state. Traumatic events can include physical trauma such as sexual assault, domestic violence or any type of physical abuse whereas psychological trauma can include bullying, emotional and verbal abuse, neglect or separation from a parent, a life-threatening medical condition, or being a witness of a violent act. This type of trauma can take place in the workplace, at home, out in society or in personal relationships and can occur during anytime in an individual’s life.

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Do I have an eating disorder?

Does my loved one have an eating disorder?

Do I have an eating disorder?

Does my loved one have an eating disorder?

The relationship between eating disorders and trauma

Co-occurring conditions are mental health disorders that occur simultaneously with another mental health disorder or a substance abuse disorder. Examples include eating disorders that occur in the presence of trauma or eating disorder that occur in the presence of alcohol abuse.  Eating disorders often triggered by traumatic events in the past and are unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with present traumatic events.

Studies have revealed that the earlier these traumatic events occur in one’s life, the more intense the outcome can be. A child who witnessed an emotionally abusive parental divorce or a house fire at a very young age will most likely be burdened by this trauma later in life. Eating disorders manifest trauma at a later age, usually during a transitional period such as early teenage years or at times of stress such as going through your own divorce as an adult. Trauma of a sexual nature is most apt to result in an eating disorder. This is due to the interpersonal nature of sexual trauma and is particularly the case if the violation was at the hand of an authority figure or family member. An eating disorder allows the woman or girl to avoid the pain, shame or guilt associated with the violation. The years in between the traumatic event and the development of an eating disorder are crucial years in order to seek treatment to learn to cope with that traumatic event however many people do not show signs or symptoms until a later transition or stressful period in their lives.

Grief, another form of emotional trauma can occurs when a family member, a friend, a pet or even a relationship is lost. Grief can result in severe sadness and denial and food can easily become a tangible way in which comfort is sought. In the presence of both trauma and grief, food can commonly become a way in which one feels able to establish control, such as through means of restricting calories, or a way in which to find comfort or relief.  Being consumed with food, calories and weight can become a way to find distraction from feelings of emptiness or despair and to hide one’s emotions. While these methods might be ways to initially cope with the intense burden of grief or trauma, these behaviors can quickly escalate into an eating disorder.


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For more information, resources, or to consult with an eating disorder treatment specialist, call 866.933.0866

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