Contributor: Staff at Sierra Tucson
A person’s relationship to food and eating is often much more complex than it seems. For some, the act of eating certain foods or using food to change the size and shape of their body can create a sense of control or fill an emotional void. But many people’s struggles with eating disorders may be tied to a history of trauma and PTSD, which can create a complicated emotional dynamic.
Connection Between Trauma & Eating Disorders
The connection between trauma and eating disorders has been well-documented by researchers. The Journal Eating Disorders notes that child sexual abuse is one of the most common types of trauma eating disorder patients experience. But many people who have eating disorders also report other types of traumatic experiences, such as a history of sexual assault, physical or emotional abuse, the death of a family member, or bullying.
The effects of trauma can make it difficult for a person to manage emotions, and they may try to regain control of their feelings by attempting to control their weight or by turning to food. The psychological trauma a person suffers can cause them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in addition to eating disorders, a combination that can make it challenging for a person to function on a day-to-day basis. Regardless of the severity of a person’s trauma symptoms, it is crucial to address their concerns on a holistic level.
Prevalence of PTSD & Eating Disorders
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that about 1 in 4 people who have an eating disorder also struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. And in a study of more than 2,400 people hospitalized for an eating disorder, NEDA says that 22% were found to have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychosomatic Medicine conducted a more granular study to evaluate the prevalence of PTSD in people who have specific eating disorders. In this case, researchers evaluated 753 women who had anorexia nervosa and found that 13.7% also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
More than one-third of the study participants reported experiencing a traumatic event at some point in their life, with childhood sexual abuse the most common traumatic experience reported by participants (40.8%), followed by sexual abuse or rape as an adult (35%) and the death or illness of a loved one (17.5%).
In this particular study, most participants reported experiencing a trauma before they began to struggle with the symptoms of anorexia nervosa (64.1%). However, every person’s experience with eating disorders, the effects of trauma, and PTSD is individual. It’s crucial to understand the unique way each of these elements influences a person’s daily life to get the care that is right for them.
When a person is struggling with an eating disorder that co-occurs with PTSD, they need treatment that addresses both concerns so they can heal on a holistic level. This process looks different for everyone, but certain elements are common to treatment for PTSD that coexists with eating disorders, such as:
- Reducing symptom severity – It’s important to reestablish safety and stability in a person’s life, making sure that their physical health is stable and that their emotional health is in a more secure place. This should be a collaborative process in which a person works with their care team to identify the most beneficial therapeutic interventions for managing their symptoms.
- Process traumatic experiences – Healing the nervous system from the damage caused by trauma is vital to the recovery process. Depending on a person’s specific needs, they may begin this work through somatic experiencing® therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness training, yoga, or meditation.
- Develop a healthier relationship to food – As a person begins to process the trauma they experienced, they also start to understand how this event may be connected with the eating disorder they have been living with. Their care team works with them to build on this understanding to develop a healthier relationship with food, eating, and their body.
Living with eating disorders that co-occur with PTSD can make a person’s life feel unmanageable. But with holistic treatment that addresses both conditions, it’s possible to rediscover hope for a better future.
References: Reyes-Rodríguez, M. L.; Von Holle, A.; Ulman, T. F.; Thornton, L. M.; Klump, K. L.; Brandt, H.; Crawford, S.; Fichter, M. M.; Halmi, K. A.; Huber, T.; Johnson, C.; Jones, I.; Kaplan, A. S.; Mitchell, J. E.; Strober, M.; Treasure, J.; Woodside, D. B.; Berrettini, W. H.; Kaye, W. H.; and Bulik, C. M. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder in anorexia nervosa. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73(6), 491–497. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3132652/  Tagay, S.; Schlottbohm, E.; Reyes-Rodriguez, M. L.; Repic, N.; and Senf, W. (2014). Eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, and psychosocial resources. Eating Disorders, 22(1), 33–49. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3966425/
About Our Sponsor:
Located in Tucson, Arizona, Sierra Tucson is the nation’s leading residential and outpatient treatment center for substance use disorders, trauma-related conditions, chronic pain, mood and anxiety disorders, and co-occurring concerns. We provide integrated, holistic care for adults age 18 and older of all genders, including specialized programs for military members, first responders, and healthcare workers. Sierra Tucson was ranked No. 1 in Newsweek’s list of Best Addiction Treatment Centers in Arizona for 2020.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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 November 5, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 5, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC