Trauma, Grief and Eating Disorders

Article contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC

Eating disorders commonly arise during traumatic experiences, resulting as a means of dealing with overwhelming emotions when coping skills are insufficient or inadequate.  Due to media propaganda, eating disorders are usually portrayed to affect young, adolescent females who aspire to thinness or an ideal body.  However, the truth is that eating disorders impact people of a variety of ages, cultures, and backgrounds.  These severe psychiatric diseases, such as Anorexia and Bulimia, do not prejudice against race or gender, as men and women across the lifecycle can be vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.

Times of grief are significant periods during which eating disorders can progress.  The severity of emotions that are experienced from loss can cause an abrupt sense of chaos in life.  Losing a loved family member, friend, pet, or relationship can utterly shake the foundation of emotional stability with feelings of sadness and grief.  While the stages of loss and grief may vary among individuals, learning how to work through bereavement is a necessary part of coping and overcoming tragedy.

Regardless of the type of loss experienced, food can easily become a tangible way in which comfort is sought.  For individuals experiencing grief in the form or loss or trauma, the chaos that results will often leave them feeling out of control.  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, weight, etc., can become a way to find distraction from feelings of emptiness or despair.  While these methods might be ways to initially cope with the intense burden of grief, these behaviors can quickly escalate into an eating disorder if continued.

If you have experienced grief or tragedy, you are likely feeling overwhelmed and are doing the best you can to continue functioning in life with the loss you have experienced.  In your grief, it is important to be aware of the following signs and symptoms, which may indicate eating disorder behaviors:

  • Loss of appetite that has influenced ongoing restricting of caloric intake
  • Reoccurring binging or overeating episodes to “escape” or “numb” painful feelings
  • Extreme weight fluctuations (weight loss or gain)
  • Avoidance of social activities or gatherings involving food
  • Engaging in methods of purging, such as vomiting after eating, laxative use, or extreme exercise
  • Hyper-focusing on calories, weight, or body image

Grief is an inevitable part of life that is a highly individualized experience – everyone goes through the stages of grief differently.  As human beings who are meant to love and connect with others, we are often unprepared to face the devastation that comes with loss.  Grief is a normal and natural response to the tragedies we might experience in life, and moving through the grieving process is a necessary part of healing.

Establishing healthy coping mechanisms can be an important gateway for healing as well.  If you recognize that grieving may have lead to the development of unhealthy eating habits or patterns, it is crucial to seek professional help until you are better able to handle your grief.  This is not a sign of weakness, but rather a step of courage towards healing and the prevention of a potentially debilitating disease.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
― Leo Tolstoy


Page Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 22, 2014
Published on, Eating Disorder Resources for Information and Treatment