How Past Traumatic Events may cause Eating Disorders
The after-effects of having experienced a traumatic event can reach far deeper than the initial stress response to the event. Intense emotional traumas, whether caused by the loss of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, divorce, or a natural disaster, can trigger significant psychological upheaval.
How one manages the stress and anxiety provoked by the trauma can vary dramatically among individuals. While some may seek solace in unhealthy sexual behaviors, another may isolate themselves from friends and family. Some cope by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs; another may manage their internal anguish with food.
Trauma and Eating Disorders
There is a very high correlation between victims of trauma and eating disorders. Although causation is not indicated—trauma doesn’t cause the eating disorder directly, or all trauma survivors would have eating disorders—there is an abundance of research that shows that a significant number of people with eating disorders have experienced a major traumatic episode in their lives.
Because traumatic events can leave the individual feeling helpless and out of control, it isn’t surprising that an eating disorder may develop as a result of these emotions. Those who have suffered through a sexual assault or domestic abuse may attempt to cope with the deep sense of shame and fear by disordered eating. Statistical links have been demonstrated between people who have suffered abuse and later go on to develop an eating disorder. Males who were sexually abused have a higher incidence of eating disorders than sexually abused females.
Bulimia has been linked to trauma as a coping behavior that serves to self-protect the individual through the binge/purge process. Bulimic behaviors appear to reduce the impact of the thoughts and emotions, like anger and guilt, as they relate to the traumatic experience. In the bulimic’s need for personal space, predictability, and control over their lives, binging and purging, they believe, cleanses them of the thoughts of the traumatic episode and offers an escape from the negative emotions that accompany it.
Unresolved trauma can sit below the surface and manipulate, although subconsciously, behaviors in order to relieve the emotional effects of the traumatic event. According to Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW, who studies the link between PTSD and eating disorders, “One of the primary purposes of eating disorder symptomatology is to avoid and cope with painful, disquieting or uncomfortable feelings or affect. The eating disorder serves both to distance oneself from these feelings or states as well as to relieve them.” Scheel continues, “From an abuse perspective, the eating disorder is a clever, albeit, destructive means to accomplish both distance and numbing as well as a means to relive the painful past events through a recreation of it through the eating disorder symptomatology.”
Treating the Trauma as well as the Eating Disorder
When trauma is an underlying condition for an eating disorder it must be addressed for any lasting recovery to take place. Without treating the deep and intense emotions connected to the trauma the individual will face an uphill battle.
The eating disorder has become medicinal to them as a means of coping with the emotional fallout of the event. In many cases, the eating disorder developed in the first place as a form of self-defense for the victim. Therefore, if the trauma is not addressed and treated, too, relapse is likely.
Casa Serena can Help
At Casa Serena, our caring professionals understand that any underlying trauma must be treated as well as the eating disorder. One of the techniques our clinicians specialize in is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which assists our clients with working through their trauma. To help the client process past memories, EMDR has them focus on an external stimulus, like the therapist’s finger, tones or taps. While their eyes follow the stimulus back and forth the therapist helps guide the client to new insights regarding their personal trauma experience.
Casa Serena understands the importance of assisting our clients through their trauma work concurrently with the treatment of the eating disorder itself. Only then can the client develop an understanding of their stressors and learn new ways to cope. Contact us today at (925) 682-8252.