Trauma and Disordered Eating
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Eating Disorders. The workshop was presented by Dr. Ashley Solomon and Jenni Schaefer and provided valuable information about how PTSD and eating disorders can intersect. Here are a few things you might not know about trauma and its impact on eating disordered behavior:
1. What exactly does trauma mean?
Everybody experiences stress to some degree, Stress turns into trauma when it begins to cause emotional and physical problems that, in turn, cause a person significant distress. Some individuals are at an increased risk for stress and trauma. This can be attributed to biological, psychological, and social factors.
Additionally, those with avoidant coping styles are more likely to experience significant distress related to trauma An avoidant coping style often is accompanied by negative self-talk and a belief that the self deserves to be punished.
2. When does a traumatic event develop into PTSD?
Most people experience a traumatic event in their lives. Research tells us that 80% of the US population reports experiencing an event that they perceived as being traumatic. The exact numbers vary by study, but we know that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among American adults is somewhere between 3-7%. So why do some people develop PTSD while most don't?
PTSD is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, avoidance, disassociation, and hyperarousal (among others). People who avoid coping with their trauma seem to be more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. Additionally, those who have a lack of resources and social support also have a higher risk of developing PTSD.
3. How does PTSD influence disordered eating?
Disordered eating symptoms such as bingeing and purging are more associated with PTSD rather than food restriction or fasting. Binge eating and purging are behaviors that have the potential to self-medicate. Individuals who engage in these behaviors after experiencing a trauma may be doing so in an attempt to reduce the hyperarousal and anxiety related to their trauma. Additionally, these bulimic behaviors may be a way to further avoid coping with and confronting their experienced trauma.
4. There are options for help
Therapists who work with trauma and disordered eating may use a variety of different methods to treat their clients. I typically focus on reducing the disordered eating behaviors using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methods. I also work with the client to process the trauma. This may involve encouraging the client to share their trauma in session or through journaling. I also encourage my clients to consider rewriting their "story" so who they've been doesn't have to be who they will always be.