The connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders is well established. An individual with PTSD may develop an eating disorder to cope with their trauma or symptoms, similar to how a person with PTSD might use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.
In this article we’ll offer some clarity on the causes of PTSD and disordered eating, how the disorders interact and how to seek treatment for this dual diagnosis.
Understanding each disorder
PTSD is a mental health condition that occurs in response to experiencing a traumatic event. The person affected may have been directly involved in the event or a witness to the event. Not everyone who experiences trauma goes on to develop PTSD. Those who are diagnosed with PTSD have adverse reactions to the trauma that linger for more than a month.
The four main symptom categories of PTSD include intrusive thoughts, avoidance behaviors, changes in cognition and mood and increased arousal or hyperactivity. These symptoms interfere with daily functioning and require clinical treatment.
Eating disorders cover a range of mental health conditions, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, rumination, pica and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
These conditions are characterized by hamrful habits like eating too little, eating too much, overexercising, eating non-nutritious food or fluctuating between overeating and fasting. These disorders are fueled by a psychological component when the individual becomes obsessed with food, calories, exercise, body weight and/or appearance.
When PTSD and eating disorders occur simultaneously, a dual diagnosis (also known as co-occurring disorders or comorbidity) may be appropriate.
Causation versus correlation
Research published in Eating Disorders found that individuals who experienced trauma — especially multiple episodes or forms of trauma — were more likely to develop an eating disorder during the course of his or her lifetime. Moreover, past experience of trauma was linked to greater eating disorder symptoms severity by a study published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology.
In addition, according to Eating Disorder Hope, a sense of powerlessness is common among those diagnosed with eating disorders. Powerlessness may be a response to a traumatic experience, and an eating disorder may develop from a desire to take back control over one area of life.
When PTSD and eating disorders co-occur, it’s tricky to untangle which came first and whether one caused the other. Identifying the origin of any psychological conditions is tricky, as there is never one single cause of a mental illness.
For example, in a set of siblings who undergo the same experiences while growing up in the same family household, one sibling may develop PTSD and an eating disorder, one may develop PTSD and the other may have no mental health concerns. So while a traumatic experience may have been a key trigger to the development of an eating disorder, there were likely other underlying biological, social, psychological or environmental factors that played a part as well.
Common risk factors for PTSD and eating disorders
If you or a loved one has a dual diagnosis of PTSD and an eating disorder, you may want to know how these diagnoses share common roots. Here are some risk factors that may lead to one or both disorders.
- A single or repeated traumatic event
- Sexual abuse
- Unstable family or support structure
- Family history of mental health disorders
- Poor coping skills
- Chronic stress
- An additional mental health diagnosis (such as anxiety or depression)
- Substance use
This is not an exhaustive list of factors that contribute to PTSD and eating disorders, but individuals affected by the above are at higher risk for developing these conditions.
Treatment for comorbid PTSD and eating disorders
Most treatment for mental health disorders circles around three components: therapy, medication and lifestyle changes. Therapy can include a vast array of modalities including psychotherapy, group therapy, ecotherapy, animal-assisted therapy and more.
Your professional care team will provide everything you need to get the therapy and medication you need, and guide you as you make adaptations in your daily life to better your mental wellness. You don’t have to walk the road to healing alone. Reach out today for help with PTSD and eating disorders.
Seeds of Hope offers confidential and compassionate care for sustainable eating disorder recovery. Get the help you deserve and call 610-644-6464 now to learn more.