Bulimia and Underlying Trauma

Article Contributed by Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC for Eating Disorder Hope

summerfield-336672_640Eating disorders, such as Bulimia Nervosa, are complex psychiatric illnesses that involve life-threatening consequences. In order for one to fully heal and recover from bulimia, it is important that treatment addresses the multitude of complex factors that may be involved.

While there is no single factor that is responsible for the development of bulimia, there are a number of issues that can increase a person’s susceptibility to having an eating disorder. These factors may include, but are not limited to:

  • Genetics: Scientists has demonstrated that our genetic make-up and certain genes can influence the development of character traits and eating disordered behaviors.
  • Family History: Having a family member who has had an eating disorder can contribute to an increased risk for developing an eating disorder
  • Trauma/Abuse: Having a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse can trigger the progression of an eating disorder.
  • Environment: The surroundings we live in, including external stressors and pressures, can influence eating disorder development.

For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on the ways underlying trauma can contribute to the development of bulimia and treatment solutions for healing.

Researchers have discovered a link between women who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bulimia, finding that the chances of developing bulimia nervosa are increased significantly when an individual is diagnosed with PTSD [1].

One study found that almost 75 percent of women enrolled in residential treatment for eating disorders claimed to experience a significant trauma, with over 50 percent of these women admitting symptoms of current PTSD [1].

What Kinds of Trauma Occur?

Findings such as these show a clear correlation between traumatic experiences and eating disorders, such as bulimia.

Traumatic experiences may include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Parental abandonment
  • Relocation
  • Experiencing war or violence
  • Being involved in a natural disaster
  • Suffering with an illness or injury
  • The death of a loved one

Any one of these traumatic events can induce intense physical and emotional responses that can occur for days, months, or years following the trauma.

The Effects of a Traumatic Event

The resulting effects from a traumatic event are overwhelming and devastating. For some individuals who may already be susceptible to developing bulimia, trauma can trigger the eating disorder into development out of need for a coping mechanism.

Bulimia can serve as a means of blunting or numbing intense emotions that arise from trauma, and the repetitive cycle of bingeing and purging can create a temporary escape from pain, guilt, anger, sadness, and grief.

In an effort to spare oneself from the distress that often comes with trauma, bulimia can artificially fulfill the need for control and progress as the alleviation from pain is temporarily felt.

An Unhealthy Coping Mechanism

While bulimia may serve as a numbing distraction from trauma, it only results in destruction. Bulimia can lead to a variety of consequences, including medical complications, social and emotional disruptions, financial ruin, and the development of other psychiatric disorders.

If you have suffered through a traumatic event and have consequently developed bulimia, it is important that you take the steps needed for healing, restoration, and recovery.

Treatment Approaches for Trauma-Related Eating Disorders

woman-68750_640Fortunately, many treatment approaches work to identify and heal from traumatic events and PTSD. Working with a qualified therapist or counselor during treatment for bulimia can be effective for addressing underlying trauma.

While it is extremely difficult to re-face traumatic experiences without the crutch of an eating disorder, this is the most effective way of dealing with the root of bulimia. Trauma-focused therapy techniques may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Pharmacotherapy, or the use of specific medications, may also be a helpful part of treatment for trauma, as they may help alleviate distress and emotional numbness.

Help Is Available

If you are seeking treatment for bulimia and have suffered trauma, be sure to inquire about strategies for trauma treatment within the programs you are investigating. This will likely include work with a qualified therapist/counselor, psychiatrist, and physician.

Working with a team of health care professionals can help you effectively heal from the traumatic experience you may have endured, which will ultimately lead you to recover from bulimia.

Through the pain you have faced, remember that your life is valuable. It is possible for you to find hope, even in the bleakest of circumstances.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with successfully addressing underlying trauma in eating disorder treatment?


  1. “The Connection Between Abuse, Trauma, and Eating Disorders”, http://www.recoveryranch.com/articles/eating-disorders/the-connection-between-abuse-trauma-and-eating-disorders/