In recent years, it has become more and more apparent to researchers that people like Heather who struggle with eating disorders often also experienced trauma related to abuse. When someone experiences neglect, and/or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, they are frequently left feeling helpless and out of control.
Survivors of trauma may develop an eating disorder as a method of coping with those feelings of helplessness, and the severe anxiety and conflicting emotions that often come with them. They may adapt unhealthy eating behaviors because food intake is something they can control and the focus on food rituals helps them to mask their emotional pain.
Trauma is by far not the only factor in the development of eating disorders—personality and temperament, perfectionism, cultural and peer pressures, family expectations, and genetic and neurological factors can also contribute to the disorder—however, it is a very common one. In order for an individual to achieve long-term recovery from an eating disorder, they must address not only their unhealthy eating and body image issues but also their underlying emotional trauma.
How Does Trauma Trigger Eating Disorders?
There is so much that scientists and researchers still don’t know about the way our minds and bodies are connected. What we do know, thanks to researchers and clinicians like Dr. Peter Levine (who is also a Senior Fellow at The Meadows) is that trauma is held within the body. It cannot be released through intellectual processing alone.
Dr. Levine’s insights are based on the idea that the methods in which we, as humans, subconsciously react to threats aren’t all that different from the ways in which our fellow mammals in the wild react to threats. When animals are presented with a dangerous situation, their brains and bodies automatically produce a survival response of fight, flight, or freeze. Once the threat is gone, they release all of their survival energy through their bodies—often by shivering, sweating, crying, or yawning. Once they have released all of the pent-up energy, they resume their normal activities.
Human beings are missing the crucial, final “release” step in their fight, flight, and freeze responses. Once we experience a survival response, the energy can get “trapped” in our bodies, leading to the development of chronic disorders such as anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD. It can also lead to the development of disordered coping mechanisms, which is what often happens with addiction and eating disorders.
Not only can the trapped energy from trauma trigger the eating disorder, it can also make recovery from the eating disorder very difficult. If the energy from the trauma is not addressed and released during the course of treatment, relapse is much more likely.
Those at high risk for eating disorders because of trauma include victims of sexual abuse, particularly those who suffered at a younger age; victims or observers of domestic violence; and, those who suffer from PTSD.
Treatment for Trauma and Eating Disorders
Successful treatment for eating disorders and trauma requires a multi-disciplinary, integrated approach. Talk therapies, including group and individual counseling sessions, are important, as are coping skills training and nutritional counseling However, since trauma lives in the body as much as in the mind, it’s important to also incorporate body-based therapies including Somatic Experiencing® (SE), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Yoga.
Somatic Experiencing® (SE)
Somatic experiencing is a body-awareness technique that was developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It was first introduced in his book, Waking the Tiger. With the help of a therapist, patients explore sensations in their bodies as they work to identify and regulate feelings of distress.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
In an EMDR session, a therapist uses external stimuli, like eye movements, tones or taps, to help the patient develop new insights or associations with their memories, triggers, and traumatic experiences. For example, the patient may be asked to focus on a particular memory or bodily sensation while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth, following the therapist’s fingers as they move across the patient’s field of vision.
Yoga and Meditation
A number of mind-body therapies can aid in stress management, boost mood, and help release trauma from the body. Trauma-sensitive meditation, acupuncture, yoga, and breath work are a few examples of techniques that can be helpful in treating eating disorders and trauma as part of a larger, integrated treatment program.
If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain recovery from anorexia or bulimia, they may be experiencing underlying trauma that needs to be addressed through treatment. The Meadows Ranch conducts a thorough assessment of all patients to help determine what, if any, trauma or co-occurring conditions might be making recovery especially difficult for them. We then develop a personalized treatment plan to help ensure progress in recovery. For more information about our programs call our intake staff at 866-390-5100 or send us an email.