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The Relationship Between Trauma and Eating disorders

Written by O'Connor Professional Group
Published on August 17, 2022

by Nadia Albritton, MA

*This blog may cause triggers among survivors of eating disorders and trauma. If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder please call/text the NEDA Helpline for support at: (800) 931-2237 or go on their website at: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

Identifying the link between trauma and eating disorders

The nature and nurture of eating disorders is complex. There is still a lot that we don’t know about eating disorders. However, we do know that there is a combination of internal (biological susceptibilities) and external factors (environmental) that contribute to such predispositions. Eating disorders are a psychological illness, and as is the case with many other mental illnesses, trauma makes a significant contribution to the development of eating disorders. Read on to learn more about the root of eating disorders, their relationship to interpersonal trauma, and how to get help.

Trauma is not a choice, and neither are eating disorders

Singer Meghan Trainor once said, “I wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder…I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours…and I quit.” As someone who works at an inpatient clinic, the ones that are ‘strong enough’ are the people that live with an eating disorder. Indeed, the mental house of an eating disorder is insidious, confusing, and dangerous. Eating disorders are responsible for some of the the highest mortality among psychological disorders.  Interpersonal trauma significantly contributes to the development of eating disorders, and it’s important to recognize that eating disorders, as with any mental illness, are never a choice.

How different types of trauma contribute to different eating disorders

It is almost irrefutable, there is comorbidity with trauma and eating disorders. In fact, a study found that “the vast majority of women and men with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating nervosa, reported a history of interpersonal trauma” (Mitchell et al. 2012). Interestingly enough, there is a notable relationship between the type of trauma and the type of eating disorder. For instance, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the least found in Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and most commonly seen in Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN). A theory for this occurrence is the impulsivity exhibited in trauma responses, BED, and BN that is not usually evidenced among individuals with restrictive tendencies. One study found that individuals with childhood sexual abuse and BN are at increased risk of a lifetime of suicide attempts. On the other hand, another study reports that emotional abuse were most strongly associated with AN symptom severity. Then there is the study that concluded that even though patients reported at least one traumatic event, no difference was found between the type of eating disorder and the type of trauma experienced. 

Exploring emotional regulation as a key to helping trauma and eating disorders

Nevertheless, the relationship trauma exposure and eating disorders appear to be interceded by emotional, biological and behavioral responses. The evidence suggests that emotional regulation plays a role in eating disorders. Dysregulation activity from trauma can be seen in the HPA-axis (whose main function involves how the body reacts to stress). In addition, a recent study used the Trier Social Stress Test (a lab experiment that evaluates acute stress), and showed heightened emotional reactivity, lower levels of hunger and severe post-stress body dissatisfaction among individuals with eating disorders. In addition, higher cortisol production (i.e. stress) was seen in those with BN. Exploration of emotional regulation is necessary because dysregulation result in a high prevalence of self-injurious behaviors, and are therefore used as coping mechanisms. 

Effective treatment options for eating disorders and trauma

Treatment to address trauma and eating disorders takes time, but recovery is possible. I have seen it! No one treatment will work for everyone (well, maybe the FBT). Your recovery needs to be personalized and catered to your needs. You are worthy of it. Here are some effective eating disorder treatment options to consider:

Family Therapy: For many, family members can be triggering. With a family therapist, you can learn communication and conflict resolution skills to foster better familial relationships

Family Based Therapy (FBT): Also known as the Maudsley method; It is the leading treatment for children and adolescents struggling with an eating disorder. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): learn how to manage difficult emotions by challenging your thinking patterns 

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): “A life worth living”; what does that look like to you? This intervention will guide you on this path along with mindfulness skills, grounding techniques, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): A type of cognitive behavioral therapy aimed for PTSD. This intervention teaches you to observe and change the thoughts you have had since your trauma. The idea is that if you can change your thought, your feeling will follow

Prolonged Exposure (PE): A cognitive behavioral therapy that takes a gradual approach to trauma-related memories, feels and situations. Over time, the individual learns that trauma-related prompts and cues do not have to be avoided

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): A technique used to heal symptoms and emotional distress attached to an unsettling life experience

Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART): An evidenced-based, rapid-eye-movement therapy for individuals who have experienced trauma

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Pronounced act, because once you accept the present moment, one can make a commitment and act.

O’Connor Professional Group (OPG) offers a breadth of behavioral health services to address the needs of individuals and families living with addictions, eating disorders, mood and personality disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and other behavioral health conditions. If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental health disorder or are in need of support, contact us today. Our compassionate professionals are here to help find the resources to support you and your family. 


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relationship between trauma and eating disorders

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