Unravelling the Trauma-Eating Disorder Connection: Understanding the Link


Last Updated on: 7th September 2023, 10:20 pm

trauma eating disorder

The fact that eating disorders are sometimes triggered by trauma has been well documented.

Unfortunately, if your dietitian or other health care professional is not trauma informed, this important fact can be overlooked and unfortunately, this can have a negative impact on treatment outcomes.

The connection between trauma and disordered eating is multi-layered. My hope from writing this blog is to: shed a light on how your lived experience can shape your relationship with food and your body, encourage patients to hold space for themselves and approach recovery with a lot of kindness, empathy and patience to self and offer HCPs some information to guide intervention, hence instead of just focusing on symptom relief, we can also hold space for our patients lived experience and allow this to influence treatment.

  • Trauma’s Role in Eating Disorders (EDs): Trauma is a deeply distressing event or series of events that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. It can range from experiences of physical or emotional abuse to neglect, loss, or witnessing violence. Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, can often emerge as a coping mechanism or an attempt to regain control in the aftermath of trauma. It is  important to note also, a certain outlier. Teenage onset anxiety. We know the teenage years are the years were depression/self harm or eating disorders is likely to be diagnosed  due to this being a vulnerable age (going through mental and hormonal changes), hence ED
  • The Impact of Trauma on the Brain: When trauma occurs, it can disrupt the normal functioning of the brain, particularly in areas responsible for regulating emotions and stress responses. This disruption can lead to the development of disordered eating patterns as individuals seek ways to numb, control, or distract from painful emotions associated with the trauma. This type of trauma can also present in dietetic clinic as a patient being tearful and or distant and or aggressive and or ‘unreliable’ i.e missing clinics, turning up late and or not engaging in treatment
  • Coping Strategies and Disordered Eating: For some individuals, disordered eating behaviours become a way to cope with the distressing emotions and memories associated with trauma. Examples include restrictive eating to regain a sense of control, binge eating as a means of soothing emotional pain, or purging to release feelings of guilt or shame.
  • The Vicious Cycle: Trauma, Eating Disorders, and Body Image: Trauma can significantly impact body image perception, leading to negative self-perception and dissatisfaction. Disordered eating behaviours may arise as individuals strive to meet society’s beauty standards or use their bodies as a means of self-punishment or protection. This unhealthy cycle perpetuates the trauma-eating disorder connection.

Understanding the profound connection between trauma and eating disorders is an essential part of treatment.

Health care professionals must at least acknowledge this part of the ED puzzle. For patients, understanding this connection is an essential part of recovery.

By acknowledging the impact of trauma, seeking professional support, and cultivating self-compassion, individuals can begin to heal and restore their relationship with food, body, and self. Remember, recovery is possible. Asking for help is a very brave and important first step.

About Me

I’m Sarah, a registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist. I am passionate about helping individuals and families overcome the challenges of eating disorders, disordered eating, and mental health conditions. My expertise lies in supporting families and individuals with a history of trauma, including domestic abuse, and guiding children and teenagers through the complexities of eating disorders, particularly those stemming from adverse childhood experiences.

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