Studies have shown that there are a high number of people suffering with eating disorders who have also experienced some form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. It is estimated that around 30 percent of eating disorder sufferers have been the victim of some form of trauma at some point in their lives. Trauma comes in the form of neglect, abuse, accidents and of course attacks such as sexual assault or rape.
However, correlations do not necessarily indicate causes. Abuse is a nonspecific risk factor, which means it can lead to many kinds of psychiatric problems, sometimes including eating disorders but often also including anxiety and depression. If abuse and trauma actually caused eating disorders, then every person suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would go on to develop an eating disorder. This is simply not the case, however, it may be true that people who are biologically predisposed to eating disorders are likely to have the eating disorder triggered by something as highly emotional and stressful as sexual abuse or any other form of trauma.
For many survivors of sexual abuse that develop an eating disorder, there is a belief that the eating disorder is a means of survival for them. Eating disorders are tricky, and they have a way of convincing sufferers that the eating disorder behaviors are healthy and required. Much of the time, sufferers find that the eating disorder behaviors manage to interweave themselves with any form of emotion or stress, and therefore appear strongest when stress is present. Whilst is it important to understand that the eating disorder and the trauma are separate issues, they often become linked in the sufferer’s understanding of them. Many sufferers feel that the eating disorder is a way that they are able to cope with their trauma and stress. For this reason, many sufferers are scared to give up their eating disorders.
Treatment For Eating Disorders
The priority for any eating disorder sufferer is weight restoration and cessation of behaviors such as bingeing and purging. Often, when weight is restored the trauma related stress lessens as the body has the nutrients that it needs in order to balance hormones and other important chemicals in the brain. By contrast, when the body is malnourished everything, both physical and mental, feels worse. With adequate nutrition and weight gain the sufferer will be in a much better place to then address whatever feelings that they are having towards trauma.
After weight is restored and adequate nutrition is stabilized, counselling should be sought.
Abuse survivor’s need to be treated in a safe environment with a therapist who they like and trust. Dealing with issues of abuse can cause some very intense feelings, which can cause the sufferer to relapse unless care is taken. During trauma work, the patient will probably need more emotional support. Carers, parents and friends should be vigilant in supporting the sufferer through the therapeutic process and this can take many years. Everyone should be on the lookout for a relapse at this crucial stage in recovery.
Another very effective therapy for trauma is yoga, as recognized by Bessel Van Der Kolk, the body holds on to trauma physically, and in the practice of yoga, the physical stretch has proved an effective method for many to release trauma. Due to the relaxing, safe and quiet environment of a yoga studio, the sufferer will be able to stay in a place of calm and therefore will be able to move through any physical places of unrest in a peaceful manner.
While trauma and eating disorders will be inevitably linked to one another if they exist within the same individual, it is important to remember that this bears no clear causality link. The sufferer may have developed an eating disorder without the trauma that preceded it. Regardless, in recovery, it is highly likely that the two things will show up alongside one another and the treatment team will need to have methods that address both the trauma and the eating disorder.
Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014