Contributor: Staff at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center
People’s relationships with food can be complicated, and, for some, the urge to engage in disordered eating behaviors may be rooted in past traumas they have experienced. Understanding the connection between eating disorders and trauma can be critical in getting to the core of a person’s struggles with an eating disorder.
Connection Between Eating Disorders and Trauma
There are many misconceptions about disordered eating, one of which is that eating disorders are simply a result of the pressures of an aggressive dieting culture. And while being surrounded by images of the “thin ideal” can certainly play a role in the development of an eating disorder, sometimes disordered eating can be a coping tool that a person may use to try to fill the void left by overwhelmingly painful or frightening experiences.
A wealth of research shows a link between trauma and eating disorders. According to Carolyn Coker Ross, M.D., MPH, rates of eating disorders are generally higher among people who have suffered a trauma, with one-third of women who have bulimia nervosa and 20% who have binge-eating disorder also meeting the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A 2018 study found that university students who had experienced a traumatic event turned to binge eating, bingeing and purging, and other disordered eating behaviors to help them try to avoid thinking about the distressing memories associated with those events.
In the study, 74% of the students had experienced at least one trauma during their life, such as sexual assault, childhood abuse, or nearly drowning. And about half (52%) of the students who engaged in disordered eating also had symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTS) from those experiences, the study found.
Multiple studies also link traumatic experiences to eating disorders in female military veterans. Research shows that female veterans who suffered military sexual trauma are twice as likely to struggle with anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder as female veterans who did not report experiencing this kind of trauma. And female veterans who have experienced other types of trauma, such as childhood abuse, physical and sexual assault, and military trauma, have also shown to have an increased risk for engaging in disordered eating behaviors.
Using Food to Cope with Trauma
Eating disorders and conditions related to trauma, like PTSD, might not seem related, but they are actually quite closely connected. When someone experiences something traumatic, they may have intrusive thoughts, memories, or even nightmares about what happened. They might also suffer from a pervasive feeling of emptiness that they just cannot seem to fill.
According to Dr. Ross, the compulsion to engage in disordered eating behaviors is often a way for people to cope with the effects of trauma that are disrupting their day-to-day lives. Binge eating may feel like a way to fill that ever-widening emotional void, Dr. Ross said, while purging may feel like a way to “rid” the body of those invasive memories, thoughts, or feelings.
“Logically, we know that we cannot fill an emotional void with food, and we cannot get rid of unwanted feelings, memories, or symptoms by emptying our stomachs,” Dr. Ross said in a 2017 article for the National Eating Disorder Association. “Yet, both provide relief for the sufferer in either managing the symptoms of PTSD or as a coping mechanism in dealing with an unresolved (and possibly subconscious) trauma.”
Understanding the root cause of a person’s struggles with disordered eating is vital in getting them the kind of treatment that is effective and long-lasting. When this compulsion is caused by trauma, it is crucial to get treatment for both trauma and an eating disorder.
Trauma-Focused Eating Disorder Treatment
Not everyone who has an eating disorder has suffered a trauma. Each person has a unique personal history that influences the way they experience an eating disorder. That’s why it’s so important to seek treatment from professionals who understand that healing from an eating disorder is different for each person.
For those who have lived through trauma or have a history of abuse or neglect, it is essential to get help for trauma while receiving treatment for an eating disorder.
These two conditions are often intertwined, so the treatment experience should focus on healing the individual on a holistic level.
A trauma-focused approach to eating disorder treatment can help you or someone you love process any past traumas you might have experienced and begin to manage the compulsion to engage in disordered eating behaviors.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that are often caused by a multitude of factors and influences. Identifying the root causes behind a person’s compulsion to engage in disordered eating can make all the difference in helping them start to live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
Arditte Hall, K. A.; Bartlett, B. A.; Iverson, K. M.; and Mitchell, K. S. (2018). Eating disorder symptoms in female veterans: The role of childhood, adult, and military trauma exposure. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 10(3), 345-351. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000301.
Ross, C.C. (2017). Eating Disorders, Trauma, and PTSD. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/eating-disorders-trauma-ptsd-recovery.
Richman, M. (2017). Research links multiple forms of trauma with eating disorders in female Vets. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.research.va.gov/currents/0717-Trauma_with_eating_disorders_in_female_Vets.cfm.
Malinauskiene, V. and Malinauskas, R. (2018). Lifetime Traumatic Experiences and Disordered Eating among University Students: The Role of Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms. BioMed Research International, 2018, 9814358. doi:10.1155/2018/9814358
About Our Sponsor:
Montecatini provides comprehensive treatment to females age 16 and older who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring addiction and mental health concerns. We provide a full continuum of life-changing care, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also offer a wellness center where clients can build healthier relationships with their bodies through joyful movement.
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 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.
Reviewed & Approved on December 19, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
Published December 19, 2019, on EatingDisorderHope.com