Trauma and Eating Disorders
Many of us who begin our careers as eating disorder specialists find that, eventually, we need to develop expertise in trauma as well. Why is that?
Understanding Eating Disorders
There are many different types of eating disorders and they develop for a wide variety of reasons that are particular to the individual that is suffering. However, one fairly common element is using food and body in order to deal with overwhelming feelings. As we’ll discuss below, the feelings associated with trauma are obviously extremely overwhelming. Furthermore, people who have suffered trauma have often formed the impression that they cannot tolerate or deal with the feelings effectively. Eating disordered behaviors, therefore, can be very appealing from a perspective of avoiding extremely difficult emotions.
If a person is very focused on eating, not eating, or thinking about eating there is not a lot of head-space left over for addressing powerful feelings like anger, sadness, or loneliness. If the body is improperly nourished, a spacy and numb feeling can result where it is difficult to really experience feelings in your body. If a person binges or purges, the physical sensations associated with those actions can also make it so that your body doesn’t register emotions as clearly. For many people, the body may also release chemicals that offer a temporary relief from emotional distress.
Trauma is defined as any event or events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with them. The “ability to cope” sounds like it would be about a person’s strength and resiliency, but it isn’t.
It simply means whether or not the body feels the need to activate the fight/fight or freeze/collapse systems, which get activated when there is a perceived overwhelming threat.
The fight/flight system has to do with getting more energy activated to deal to either mount a defense or get away from a predator, and the freeze/collapse system has to do
with being still or playing dead so that a predator might leave you alone.
In trauma, these systems get dysregulated. This might happen as a result of a single, extremely overwhelming incident such as a car accident. It is often also the effect repeated traumas such as the cumulative effect of being in comb or suffering an extended illness. For many people, ongoing traumas are more rooted in relationships and ways of being treated that effect someone’s sense of self such as feeling emotionally unsafe in your family of origin. These types of trauma often happen earlier in life and can have an ongoing effect into adulthood.
And so people who have experienced trauma are often besieged with overwhelming feelings. They may have “flashback emotions” and feel as if they are in the traumatic experience long after it’s over. Often, this can feel like a free-floating sense of anxiety or dread with no external cause to pin it to. They may have a great deal of anger and sadness that are rooted in the traumatic experiences, as well as in the continued experience of dealing with the traumatic response.
Eating Disorder & Trauma Treatment
It can be easy to see how the overwhelming feelings associated with trauma, and the effect of eating disorders as helping people to avoid overwhelming feelings, make for a perfect storm. If you are struggling with both eating disorders and trauma, it is important to work with a psychotherapist who is fluent in both of these areas. You can look for somebody with these specialties in on a database such as Psychology Today, or if you are in the DMV area you can contact a Monarch therapist to see if you’d be a good fit.