Although eating disorders revolve around food and weight, they often have deeper root causes that must be identified before recovery can begin. One of the biggest risk factors for eating disorders is trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is the mind and body’s response to any event that causes severe psychological distress. It has many symptoms, such as:
- Guilt and shame
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disturbances or nightmares
- Startling easily
- Emotional numbness
Although some people recover from traumatic events within a few weeks, others have lasting symptoms. They may even 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 researchers have analyzed the connection between trauma and eating disorders. One study 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 met the criteria for PTSD. Likewise, eating disorders were more prevalent in people with trauma and PTSD.
Another study found that around 30% of people with eating disorders had been sexually abused in childhood. This research reveals a strong correlation between trauma and eating disorders. Why is this? 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’s possible that people who suffer from both are using their eating habits as a way to disconnect from, or numb, the difficult emotions brought on by trauma.
It’s also worth noting that trauma can cause individuals to have a negative self-image and experience strong guilt or shame. This can manifest in body dysmorphia or eating disorder symptoms. Eating disorders often 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. Since traumatic events leave people feeling powerless, eating disorders can be a way to regain power. Unfortunately, these types of disorders spiral out of control until the individual’s life is dominated by food and weight.
It’s possible that people who develop eating disorders and PTSD have genetic traits that put them at greater risk for these two disorders. Research has shown that there is a genetic component to eating disorders. Having a close relative with an eating disorder increases your risk of developing one. Genetics is likewise a risk factor for PTSD and many other mental health disorders.
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 diagnosis 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’s 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. You can connect with our treatment team on a safe, secure video conferencing platform.
Take the first step toward recovery today – contact Seeds of Hope at (610) 644-6464.