Eating Disorders and Abuse

Childhood Abuse & Eating Disorders

A large percentage of the people who suffer from eating disorders have also experienced some form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Such trauma may come in the form of neglect, emotional invalidation, accidents or direct physical attacks, such as rape and sexual assault. It may be noted, however, that there isn’t always a direct correlation between the an event and an outcome.

Abuse isn’t necessarily a specific risk factor for eating disorders. Trauma can also lend itself to several other types of psychiatric difficulties, which include eating disorders, but also anxiety and depression. If trauma were the only cause of eating disorders, then nearly everyone with PTSD would go on to develop an eating disorder, which just isn’t necessarily the case. It may be true though, that people who are predisposed to eating disorders biologically are more likely to have disordered eating triggered by highly charged emotional and stressful events, like abuse sexual or any other kind of trauma.

For victims of abuse and trauma that do end up with an eating disorder, there is a belief that the control involved in disordered eating is a way to survive. Eating disorders are difficult; the sufferer is often convinced the eating disorder behaviors are healthy and necessary. Those with eating disorders will try to manage the eating disorder behaviors as they intertwine themselves with strong emotions or stress. While it is important to understand that eating disorders and trauma are specific issues in themselves, they often become emotionally linked. Many victims feel that the eating disorder is a coping mechanism to deal with their trauma and stress. This is the reason that many victims are afraid to let go of their eating disorders.

The priority for anyone who suffers from an eating disorder is to restore healthy body weight and stop behavior like bingeing and purging. It is often when a normal body weight is achieved, that the stress of trauma eases a bit as the nutrients needed to balance hormones and other important chemicals in the brain acquired. Conversely, when the body is under nourished everything, physically and mentally, may feel worse. With the return of balanced nutrition and healthy body weight the individual is in a much better place to deal with difficult emotions in relation to trauma. Therapy should be sought once body weight is restored and physical health is stabilized.

Therapy should take place in a safe environment with a practitioner that the individual trusts. Abuse issues bring about intense feelings, which in turn may precipitate a relapse, so care must be taken. Trauma work will bring about the need for greater emotional support for the individual. When appropriate, friends or family may be a valuable support to someone with an eating disorder as they journey through the therapeutic process. They should also be aware of the possibility of relapse during the first critical steps in the recovery process.

In addition to therapy, yoga has proven effective in helping those with eating disorders and body image issues along the path towards recovery. The stretching which takes place during yoga helps to release stored trauma in the body. A yoga studio may also provide a quiet, relaxing and safe environment where the individual may remain calm while also being aware of any emotions that come up during the physical routine. Equine-assisted therapy is also proving highly therapeutic with victims of abuse and trauma.  The bond that individuals begin to form with horses during equine therapy sessions help empower individuals to establish physical boundaries and a feeling of safety.  Non-verbal interactions of this type also force an individual with core trauma issues to focus more on feeling states that arise without the distraction of articulation.

Trauma and eating disorders are generally associated with each other if they exist within the same person, even though it’s not always the case that one necessarily causes the other. It is possible a person may develop an eating disorder without precedent trauma, perhaps due to other biological or environmental factors. However, it is more likely than not, in the initial stage of recovery, both trauma and eating disorders are found to be inexorably linked.
A highly specialized treatment plan implemented by well qualified clinicians will address both of these issues together and help guarantee healthy long-term recovery for those afflicted with an eating disorder.

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