Although eating disorders revolve around food and weight, they often have deeper root causes that must be identified before recovery can begin. One of these major risk factors which contributes to eating disorders is trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the mind and body’s response to any event that causes severe psychological distress. It can have many various symptoms, such as:
- Guilt and shame;
- Mood swings;
- Difficulty concentrating;
- Sleep disturbances or nightmares;
- Startling easily;
- Emotional numbness.
While some may recover from trauma in a matter of weeks, for others the process can be extensive and span for many years. Those who deal with lasting symptoms may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a chronic mental health condition that disrupts daily functioning.
What does trauma have to do with eating disorders?
Many studies have found and analyzed the connection between eating disorders and trauma. One study regarding the link between eating disorders and PTSD found that about one third of women with bulimia nervosa, 20% with binge eating disorder and 11.8% with other types of eating disorders also meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. These studies found that eating disorders are generally more prevalent in people with trauma and PTSD.
Sexual abuse is another common cause of trauma which presents a link to eating disorders. One study found that around 30% of people with eating disorders had been sexually abused in childhood. What is behind this strong correlation? There are several potential explanations.
Eating disorders as a coping mechanism
In some cases, people turn to disordered eating as a way to cope with painful experiences. Both PTSD and eating disorders have high rates of dissociation — a feeling of being disconnected from oneself. It is possible that people who suffer from both disorders are attempting to use their eating habits as a means to disconnect from or numb the traumatic memories and emotions.
It is also worth noting that trauma may cause individuals to have a negative self-image and experience strong sense of guilt or shame. This can manifest itself in body dysmorphia or eating disorder symptoms. Eating disorders commonly involve low self-esteem, as well as a negative view of one’s body.
Regaining a sense of control
Individuals may severely restrict their food intake or structure their exercise routine in an effort to regain a sense of control in their lives. Traumatic events often leave people feeling powerless, whereas eating disorders provide a false sense of regaining power over the “one thing” you can control: Your body. Unfortunately, these types of disorders spiral out of control, rather defeating the initial intention until the individual’s life is dominated by food and weight.
Genetics is likewise a risk factor for PTSD and many other mental health disorders, so it is possible that people who develop eating disorders and PTSD have genetic traits that place them at greater risk for these two disorders. Research has shown that there is a genetic component to eating disorders, although it is difficult to pinpoint the specific genetic markers that contribute the most. Having a close relative with an eating disorder may increase the risk of developing one.
Can trauma or abuse cause eating disorders?
Any form of abuse or trauma can contribute to the development of an eating disorder, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual assault, and bullying. Keep in mind that eating disorders are complex and have many causes. While it’s not possible to say whether trauma directly causes an eating disorder, it is a strong risk factor.
Identifying trauma in people with eating disorders
It can be difficult to see the link between a person’s current disordered eating and their past traumatic experiences. This is especially true when they suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Unlike regular PTSD, C-PTSD is not caused by a single traumatic event, but rather a series of such events for an extended period of time – for example, childhood abuse. People with C-PTSD may not be aware of their condition because this disorder often involves suppressing memories of childhood.
An individual may seek treatment for eating disorder symptoms and then discover the link to past trauma in their therapy sessions. Once identified, the trauma needs to be addressed alongside the eating disorder behaviors. Otherwise, the individual will not be able to fully recover because the root cause will remain unresolved. It is important for clinicians to screen for other mental health disorders when treating eating disorders.
Treating eating disorders and trauma
When an individual suffers from both trauma and an eating disorder, they are said to have co-occurring disorders. Both conditions must be treated through a variety of therapies. If one goes unaddressed, the symptoms will interfere with recovery.
Some treatment methods are aimed specifically at eating disorders, while others are designed for trauma. For example, meal practice helps an individual prepare and/or eat a meal, then process the emotions that arise during and after the experience. This is effective for treating eating disorder symptoms. On the other hand, a more traditional therapy like cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is designed to help clients process traumatic experiences. Individuals with a dual diagnosis of eating disorder and trauma will benefit from both types of therapy.
Looking for eating disorder and trauma therapy?
If you have struggled with disordered eating and traumatic experiences, you need a treatment program that can address both. Seeds of Hope takes a holistic approach. Our team includes nutritionists, dietitians, psychiatrists, and therapists trained in a variety of techniques. We help our clients discover a sense of wholeness and healing.
Our residential treatment center remains open with precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are also offering all of our outpatient programs for adults and teens through teletherapy. Connect with our treatment team on a safe, secure video conferencing platform.