It is believed that over 70% of the U.S. population will experience some form of a traumatic event in their lifetime. In a worldwide study that surveyed roughly 68,000 individuals, 70% reported already having experienced a traumatic event. One thing we know about traumatic events is that, for the most part, they never dissipate on their own. They either have immediate effects and consequences, or they recede under the surface until they manifest into a potential mental health disorder. Many times this manifestation specifically results in eating disorders.

People often minimize eating disorders without even knowing that they are doing it. This happens when they focus solely on the behaviors associated with eating disorders and not the underlying emotional issues. If underlying issues aren’t considered, then the risk is run of thinking that having an eating disorder is a choice. Nothing could be more inaccurate.

Eating disorders rarely manifest out of nowhere. They are often linked to conscious issues that an individual may use disordered eating as a coping mechanism, or an eating disorder may be linked to subconscious issues that an individual may not be aware of. This last aspect is where issues of trauma relate to eating disorders because trauma can remain buried under the surface as the behaviors of the eating disorder take on the visible role of the mental health issue. Underlying trauma can be a serious issue, and if it coexists with an eating disorder, it must be treated with the same focus as the disorder.

What Exactly Is Trauma?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a relatively succinct overview of what trauma exactly is. SAMHSA describes trauma as an event or circumstance that “results in physical harm, emotional harm, or life-threatening harm.” They also point out that to qualify as a trauma, an event must have lasting effects on “an individual’s mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and/or spiritual well-being.”

However, while a trauma can have the same harm and lasting effects, certain types of trauma can look very different. The following are just a few types of trauma that an individual can suffer from:

  • A traumatic event relating to a close death in the family, or a terminal illness

  • An event that occurs while in military combat

  • Physical, verbal, and/or emotional abuse that occurs in the home

  • Extended periods of bullying and/or cyberbullying

  • A natural disaster or negative universal event

  • Losing a job or suddenly suffering from financial insecurity

While all of these situations may look very different, similar mental health issues can manifest from all of them. This includes the emergence of eating disorders or disordered eating.

The Correlation Between Trauma and Eating Disorders

A very pivotal aspect that surrounds traumatic events is an individual’s inability to control the event. For example, a young child may struggle with not being able to interfere in domestic abuse. Or, a person may feel a sense of depression and apathy after experiencing a natural disaster that they could not have seen coming and not have been able to do anything about.

This control aspect is often why mental health disorders that involve compulsive behaviors arise from traumatic events. While it certainly isn’t the only aspect of eating disorders, for many, maintaining control is a large part of why an eating disorder persists.

When an individual has felt struck down by a lack of control, finding something that they can control can feel very gratifying. With eating disorders, this gratified feeling supersedes an individual’s physical, psychological, or social well-being. For example, an individual that is struggling with underlying trauma may restrict their calories to feel in control of something. Of course, this is very simplified, but this fall under the eating disorder category of anorexia nervosa. Other eating disorders, like bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, focus on control in similar ways. 

Treatment Options for These Co-Occurring Disorders

An important aspect of treating any co-occurring mental health disorders is that they must be treated in tandem. This eliminates the potential for one disorder to go unchecked and ultimately retriggers the disorder that was thought to have been treated. Trauma and eating disorders are no different.

One of the best treatment modalities for trauma is therapy. This can be individualized therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). It could also be group therapy that can help individuals with trauma connect with others that have shared experiences. For individuals with trauma and eating disorders, nutrition therapy can be highly beneficial and is highly recommended. Nutrition therapy does not simply treat the disorder; it treats the issues that underly the disorder as well.

At BeCollaborative Care, we understand that eating disorder recovery is not simply about nourishment from food. It is about nourishing the whole self. For individuals that are struggling with trauma, it is about nourishing that affected inner self and getting them away from and beyond those traumatic events. At BeCollaborative Care, we know that recovery is possible not just from eating disorders but from their causes as well.

It is not uncommon for eating disorders to be the result of some other underlying emotional or traumatic issues. Just like many other issues of mental health, what lies under the emotional or cognitive surface can be just as in need of being treated as the behaviors it manifests. If you feel like you or a loved one may be struggling with underlying emotional issues, issues of trauma, or behavioral eating disorder symptoms, please know that you are not alone. We can help you get on the right track for long-term recovery. For more information on how trauma often relates to eating disorders and other issues of mental health, reach out to be Collaborative Care today at (401) 262-0842.