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April 20, 2017

Eating Disorders and Trauma: What is the Connection?

Woman in IOP standing by waterfall

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric illnesses that are influenced by a variety of factors and stressors.

Individuals who develop eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, often have a combination of risk factors that increase their susceptibility to these diseases.

The experience of trauma, for example, is a type of environmental trigger that can increase a person’s risk of having an eating disorder.

Understanding the Trauma Connection

To understand the connection between eating disorders and trauma, it is first necessary to define trauma itself.  The experience of trauma can vary from one person to another and falls under a wide range of categories.

Some of the major categories of trauma include but are not limited to [1]:

  • Emotional Abuse
  • Psychological Maltreatment
  • Sexual Assault or Abuse
  • Physical Assault or AbuseWoman in boots
  • Neglect and/or Abandonment
  • Community Violence (Witness or Victim)
  • Domestic Violence (Witness or Victim)
  • Medical Procedures, Illness or Serious Accidents
  • Bullying
  • Manmade or Natural Disasters
  • Grief or Separation
  • Political Violence, Terrorism, War

Research has demonstrated a correlation between the experience of traumatic experiences and the later development of eating disorders [2].

Because trauma often triggers intense emotions, including anger, guilt, and sadness, as well as severe mood disparities, including depression and anxiety, an eating disorder may arise as a means of self-managing many of the experiences related to trauma.

Individuals who have experienced sexual abuse are particularly at risk for the development of eating disorders, with approximately 30 percent of individuals with an eating disorder having a history of sexual abuse [2].

The body shame resulting from sexual trauma often triggers destructive behaviors toward the body, many which are associated with an eating disorder, like binging, purging, starvation, and more.

Treatment for Eating Disorders & Trauma

Eating disorders are often connected to the experience of trauma, often because the behaviors associated with these diseases develop as a coping mechanism or means of self-protection. Many individuals who have suffered some form of trauma may engage in an eating disorder as a means of escaping the related emotions or reducing awareness of what they might have experienced.

Woman by waterfallAdequately addressing the trauma experience is a vital component of the eating disorder recovery process. This requires intensive and comprehensive care that incorporates therapeutic approaches for trauma healing, such as dialectical behavior therapy, expressive therapies, and more.

If you or a loved one has experienced trauma and a resulting eating disorder, know that you are not alone and that there is hope for your healing and recovery.

Connect with a specialized eating disorder treatment center that can help you heal from past trauma you may have experienced.

Sponsored by Magnolia Creek

Peacefully nestled in 36 wooded acres and located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders treats women (18 years and older) who struggle with eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, and co-occurring addictive behaviors. Magnolia Creek’s phenomenal team of therapists, doctors, nurses, and dietitians is dedicated to providing the highest quality of care using current research-supported methods in a cozy, retreat-like setting. With a dual license to treat eating disorders and mental health disorders, we work collaboratively with our clients to create an individualized treatment approach for each client that not only nourishes the body but also strengthens the spirit.

LindasmithAbout the Author: Linda Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders in Columbiana, Alabama. Prior to joining Magnolia Creek, Linda served as an Electronic Interchange Consultant for Comprehensive Radiology Groups throughout the state.

She also worked with one of the leading facilities in addiction, Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services located in Hattiesburg, MS. She has extensive experience in inpatient, outpatient, residential and partial hospitalization treatment, and is well versed in eating disorders, co-occurring mental health disorders, substance abuse, and love and sex addiction.


[1]: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Types of Trauma and Violence”, https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence/types Accessed 14 April 2017
[2]: National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), “Trauma and Eating Disorders”, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/ResourceHandouts/TraumaandEatingDisorders.pdf Accessed 17 April 2017

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on April 18, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 26, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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