According to the American Psychiatric Association, an eating disorder is a mental illness, not a lifestyle choice. What might start out as a preoccupation with food and weight is actually an attempt to control overwhelming feelings of low self-esteem, lack of control, loneliness, depression and anxiety. Interestingly, these are the same psychological symptoms of trauma and abuse.
The link between eating disorders and trauma has been well known for years. Many people who have eating disorders have reported a history of trauma. Traumatic events can easily lead a person to develop an anxiety disorder such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder and PTSD — common risk factors for eating disorders.
Eating Disorders and Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is one of the leading risk factors for developing an eating disorder. People with eating disorders often report a history of sexual trauma. Childhood sexual abuse, in particular, is especially common. Studies have found that as much as 35 percent of women with bulimia have suffered sexual abuse. In fact, a person who experiences a traumatic event of any kind is more likely to develop bulimia than any other eating disorder.
Eating Disorders and PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional illness that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event that was either life-threatening or created extreme feelings of helplessness. Traumatic events such as war, rape, sexual or physical abuse, a car or plane crash, natural disasters, kidnapping and medical procedures (especially in children) are common causes of PTSD.
It’s been found that people with PTSD are three-times more likely to develop an eating disorder as someone without PTSD, and a recent study from the Medical University of South Carolina even suggested that eating disorder treatment programs should adopt a standard practice of evaluating and treating patients for PTSD.
Eating Disorders and Trauma: Understanding the Link
People who suffer from a traumatic event experience a great loss of control. Abuse victims experience the same loss of control in addition to feelings of low self-esteem and poor self-image. All of these emotional effects are manifested in the behaviors of eating disorders (e.g.; trying to establish control over one’s body and life, and feeling unhappy with one’s body). Someone who is trying to “fix” their body may unconsciously be trying to fix their past. Patients diagnosed with eating disorders also often have co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, personality disorders and substance abuse. These are some of the common symptoms of PTSD.
Getting Help for Eating Disorders and Trauma
Eating disorders can be caused by many things, including emotional, psychological, biological and social factors. Trauma is one of the leading factors, which means recovering from an eating disorder is highly unlikely unless treatment for PTSD also occurs. If you or someone you love is exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, it’s important to contact a professional right away. Untreated PTSD can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences to a person’s physical and emotional well-being, as well as to their ability to function normally within relationships and society. The sooner it is addressed, the easier it is to overcome.
When choosing an eating disorder treatment program, seek a treatment facility that specializes in eating disorders and co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, depression and anxiety. By simultaneously addressing all the issues that are affecting the patient, full recovery can be possible.