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The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Trauma

Young woman of color wearing grey sweater sitting on sofa looking depressed

Trauma and eating disorders commonly exist together. More than half of people with a diagnosed eating disorder have a history of trauma. If you have unresolved trauma, individuals may attempt to cope with their emotions and regain control of their life in many ways, including through an eating disorder. Understanding food trauma symptoms may help you or your loved one better understand how to resolve these issues. 

Understanding Food Trauma Symptoms

Emotional trauma is a person’s response to an extremely distressing event or series of events. Trauma often leaves a person feeling extreme fear and a lack of control over their life. The reason an eating disorder and trauma coexist may be different for each person, not all people who suffer trauma express this hurt through food trauma symptoms. 

The relationship between eating disorders and trauma may stem from:

  • Attempting to Cope: Some people may turn to disordered eating behaviors to cope with traumatic emotions. The eating behavior may help distract them, at least temporarily, from the negative feelings. 
  • Regulating Emotions: An eating disorder can help people with trauma suppress or numb their emotions, helping them detach from the trauma for a short time.
  • A Need for Control: Trauma often leaves people feeling like they don’t have control of themselves or their lives. They may then develop an eating disorder in an attempt to regain control of something such as food or their own bodies.
  • Negative Self-Image: A negative view of oneself, low self-esteem, and a poor self-image may result from trauma. This negative view of self can encourage disordered eating.
  • Poor Body Image: Some trauma survivors develop a negative body image. They may develop an eating disorder to control their appearance and feel more empowered in their own body.

While these factors may indicate an eating disorder or unhealthy relationship with food, seeking professional guidance that views these struggles through a trauma-informed lens will give you a better understanding of how to proceed. 

“If you think you’re developing an unhealthy relationship with food, whether you’ve experienced trauma or not, it’s important to get help early,” said Mackenzie Reeser, MPH, RDN, LDN, Director of Nutrition Services at Integrative Life Center. “Eating disorders can progress quickly, so the sooner you can get professional help, the better.”

Understanding Eating Disorders

Almost 29 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. While this may seem disheartening at a glance, it is useful to recognize that eating disorders are both common and treatable. However, reflecting the insights of Reeser, an eating disorder can impact a person very quickly with lasting results, so it is important to address any eating disorder quickly. 

For many people, healing from an eating disorder implies healing childhood trauma in order to prevent a dual diagnosis of alcohol and eating disorders or other substances.

Understanding several disorders’ warning signs and symptoms can help determine if you or your loved one are experiencing an eating disorder and guide your next steps. The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. 

Anorexia Nervosa

Extreme food restriction is the primary symptom of anorexia. With this disorder, people typically diet, fast, and exercise excessively to lose weight. Warning signs and symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Fear of gaining weight and commenting about being overweight even with weight loss
  • Obsessing over being thin
  • Viewing oneself as being heavier than you really are
  • Measuring self-esteem by body shape and size, yet seeing themselves differently than they are
  • Avoid public eating or having meals with others
  • Maintaining a rigorous exercise plan to burn off calories
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as constipation, bloating, cramping, and acid reflux
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling cold
  • Dry and brittle nails, skin, and hair
  • Impaired immune functions
  • Menstrual irregularities in women

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is a cycle of binge eating and purging to eliminate the calories just consumed. The purging may happen by self-induced vomiting or by using laxatives. Warning signs and symptoms of bulimia may include:

  • Evidence of binge eating or purging, such as several empty food wrappers or containers, frequent bathroom visits after meals, signs or smells of vomiting, and packaging for laxatives or diuretics in the trash
  • Excessive exercise or even fasting in addition to purging
  • Discolored or stained teeth
  • Swelling of the cheeks or jaw area
  • Calluses or injuries to the back of the hand(s) and knuckle(s) 
  • Increased and even excessive use of mouthwash, mints, and gum 
  • Changes eating habits frequently to include dieting, removing food types from their diet, avoiding eating with others or in public, and drinking more than usual amounts of water or zero-calorie beverages
  • Distorted body image with frequent mirror checks 
  • Hiding the body with baggy clothes
  • Being hyper-aware of weight and appearance
  • Acid reflux, stomach cramps, constipation, or other digestive issues
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired immune functioning 
  • Dental problems from the loss of tooth enamel and cavities 
  • Thyroid issues
  • Slowed heart rate

Binge Eating Disorder

Food trauma symptoms are not only about food deprivation. People with binge eating disorder consume a large amount of food quickly and often. They also continue eating, even after they’re full. Binge eating isn’t followed by purging or excessive exercise. Warning signs and symptoms of binge eating include:

  • Eating alone and avoiding eating in front of others
  • Feelings of disgust or guilt after eating
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Gallbladder disease

“There are other eating disorders, but these are the most common ones,” says Reeser. “Exact symptoms and behaviors vary, depending on the individual. So, any unusual food behaviors or body image beliefs that result in physical or emotional concerns should be discussed with a mental health professional.” 

Trauma and Eating Disorders

People respond to traumatic happenings in different ways. Two people can experience the same traumatic event and have extremely different responses. Emotional trauma symptoms can vary, including the development of eating disorders. Specifically, an eating disorder may be one of the long-term effects of childhood trauma, and may relate to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brought on by a specific traumatic event. PTSD and eating disorders relate to each other more often than many people realize.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or potentially traumatic events that occur before the age of 18, are specifically linked to eating disorders. 

Other factors may also increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, including:

  • Having a negative or distorted body image
  • Genetics or a family history of eating disorders
  • Society’s pressure for an ideal image
  • Significant life events, like divorce, major life transitions, and unexpected death and loss is linked directly to eating disorders. 

In one study, about 26% of people with bulimia also showed indicators of PTSD, and 23% of those with anorexia showed signs of PTSD. Both trauma, specifically PTSD, and eating disorders have a high rate of feeling disconnected from yourself, or dissociation. This explains how trauma and eating disorders can work to numb the feelings from the trauma and the invading thoughts.

“While it happens in various ways, there is a clear connection between trauma and the development of eating disorders,” Mackenzie stated. “That’s why it’s critical to get to the root cause of an eating disorder. We have to heal the trauma to be able to effectively treat the eating disorder.” For these reasons, we believe trauma-informed therapy provides the most consistent path to recovery.

Healing Through Trauma-Informed Care and Treatment

Your journey to recovery and long-term healing from an eating disorder begins through programs that put your health and well-being first. Integrative Life Center’s eating disorder treatment programs include trauma-informed care and various therapies to provide a tailored recovery plan for each individual who works with us. Our approach to individualized care, as well as the facilities and care providers we use make us some of the best eating disorder treatment Nashville has to offer. We believe that individualizing our treatment plans provides the best pathway to recovery. Contact ILC at (615) 891-2226 to learn how you or your loved one can benefit from our trauma-informed treatment programs.

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