By Mandy Parsons
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that an estimated 9% of the US population, or 28.8 million Americans, will have an eating disorder (ED) in their lifetime.
Furthermore, 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder.
Researchers agree that eating disorders are caused by complex biological, genetic, behavioral, and social factors. However, recent studies have turned a spotlight on the link between trauma and eating disorders.
One such study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found the frequency of potentially traumatic events (PTEs) to be 92.2% in patients with anorexia and 98% among those who suffered from bulimia.
A potentially traumatic event, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), is one where an individual is exposed to actual or threatened death, severe injury, or sexual violence. Approximately one-half of all adults living in the United States will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives.
You may be wondering, What types of traumatic events lead to EDs? How does trauma affect our relationship with food and body image? And, Can these challenges be overcome?
Types of Traumas Associated with Eating Disorders
Featured by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorder expert Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross explains that eating disorders are rarely only about food and eating habits. She has found that most EDs have a root cause which, in many cases, is untreated and unresolved trauma.
There are many types of traumas associated with EDs. Ross cites neglect, sexual assault and harassment, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and bullying, among others. She specifies that child sexual abuse is a widely recognized risk factor for childhood trauma and eating disorders.
Complex trauma and eating disorders are also thought to be linked. Complex trauma, as defined by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), describes “both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events — often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure.”
The most commonly experienced traumas in the aforementioned NIH study of women with eating disorders were life-threatening illness, death of a close person or family member, and sexual assault (as a child or an adult) by a stranger or family member.
Meadows Senior Fellow Jenni Schaeffer talks about trauma and eating disorders in our Beyond Theory podcast. She recalls how her own eating disorder was a “smoke screen,” creating diversion from her inability to face the trauma of rape.
How Trauma Impacts Your Relationship with Food
“The exact mechanism for why trauma contributes to the development of an eating disorder is unclear,” says Ross. “What is known is that trauma can cause a disruption in the nervous system which may make it difficult for individuals to manage their emotions.”
And when we don’t have the capacity for difficult thoughts and feelings, we find other ways to cope. This often includes destructive behaviors like disordered eating and substance abuse.
Similarly, those who suffer trauma often feel a loss of control over their circumstances. Restricting food or becoming overly concerned about body image may be your attempt to regain control. In the instance of sexual trauma, for example, victims might intentionally gain or lose significant weight in an effort to make themselves less attractive.
Another important trauma-food connection is the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines PTSD as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events, or set of circumstances.”
Not all people with PTSD have an eating disorder; however, again, the previously cited study found the prevalence of PTSD in ED patients to be 24.3%. This finding and many others suggest that PTSD and eating disorders are correlated.
Schaeffer’s own trauma story is evidence of this theory. “Having an eating disorder at that time made me more vulnerable,” she says. “It was an ember for PTSD. It started the flame because I didn’t have a coping strategy to deal with the trauma.”
You Can Overcome
Whether you are struggling with an eating disorder caused by trauma or another underlying issue, it’s critical to identify and address the source.
Just like there are signs you may be battling an eating disorder, trauma and PTSD exhibit symptoms as well. Consider the following prompts:
- Do you experience persistent, frightening, and recurring memories of the event?
- Are you having trouble sleeping?
- Do you feel consistently numb or detached?
- Are you unusually angry or are having angry outbursts?
- Are you easily startled?
- Are you unable to function at work, home, or socially?
If the above sounds familiar and you currently have an eating disorder, your ED may be trauma related. Fortunately, there is hope.
Help Is Available at The Meadows Ranch
Schaeffer recommends finding a facility like The Meadows Ranch that not only treats eating disorders but also trauma and other co-occurring conditions. This multifaceted approach is proven to be the most effective for lasting healing.
At The Meadows Ranch we know that recovery from an eating disorder is possible because we see it every day. Reach out now to find hope and healing. We can help you find a healthy, balanced, and purposeful life.