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Trauma and Eating Disorders

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When you hear someone has experienced a trauma, your initial thought is they were involved in some catastrophic event. Rarely does the image of an everyday problem or situation enter your mind; in most cases the later doesn’t even make it on your radar. The smaller traumatic events, which have been labeled by some as small “t” traumas, are just as important to consider when it comes to working with people with a mental health issue (C. Patterson-Sterling, personal communication, November, 2010).

In one article, Scaer (2006) highlights the tendency of some to negate the smaller traumas their clients experienced. Trauma as described by Scaer is “any negative life event occurring in a state of relative helplessness- a car accident, the sudden death of a loved one, a frightening medical procedure, a significant experience of rejection- can produce the same neurophysiological changes in the brain as do combat, rape or abuse” (p.50).

The above is significant when helping clients, because any type of trauma has the potential to create a fear network within a person’s memory pathways (C. Patterson-Sterling, personal communication, November, 2010). These pathways are problematic if they become the new default position thus, causing the individual to live their life from a fear position. Fear can have negative repercussions if not managed effectively, such has been seen with some of the individuals suffering from an eating disorder.

At one end of the spectrum, trauma can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); although the purpose of this article is not to discuss PTSD directly, it is raised because the research done on the topic has provided useful information that can be applied to eating disorders and addiction treatment programs, as the emotions studied are similar. It is important to note there can still be residual effects of trauma even if an individual is not diagnosed as PTSD.

Anxiety is an emotion commonly seen in trauma clients and eating disorder (ED) patients. Anxiety typically manifests itself through bodily functions such as tight jaw, sweating ect. These bodily functions can act as a trigger for those suffering with an eating disorder; thus, beginning the eating disorder cycle as the person tries to elevate the anxiety.

Safety is another emotion effected in people who have experienced trauma or are suffering from an eating disorder. When people feel safe in their environment and confident in their ability to stay safe, their anxiety is not as likely to cause problems. Conversely, when people feel unsafe or unable to protect themselves anxiety become problematic, and as outlined above can begin the cycle of an eating disorder. It should be noted, this feeling of being unsafe may or may not be rational, but the individual feels unsafe as a result of these newly formed pathways described above.

As seen in people dealing with trauma and eating disorders, anxiety can become problematic because it may lead them to withdrawal from life, which will only add to the isolation and negative thoughts. Anxiety and lack of control are common triggers in eating disorders, so the idea of these emotions beginning in a traumatic event is worth considering when working with these clients.

Trauma is an area that is gaining a lot of attention lately; moreover, there seems to be a lot of attention and research on how trauma can impact the treatment of addiction, and to a much smaller extent eating disorders. Certainty trauma is not involved in all eating disorder clients but the research and new approaches resulting from this research can be valuable.

Scaer, R. (2006). Carious Present. Psychotherapy Networker November/December, 49-67.

© Copyright 2011 by Jodie Barley, MA, RCC, CHRP, therapist in West Vancouver, British Columbia. All Rights Reserved.

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  • lacy June 15th, 2011 at 5:16 PM #1

    makes sense that even simple things could trigger trauma in one’s mind.look at little kids.even a little noise can frighten them.I think this same rule could be applied to adults because not everybody’s mental and emotional make-up is the some people could really go through much more than normal even for simple problems that they face.

  • Tasha Leslie June 15th, 2011 at 11:40 PM #2

    I can vouch for the small fears affecting you physically. After I was in a minor car accident with my ex I couldn’t sit in the car without feeling my whole body stiffen the minute I got in. The accident wasn’t even his fault but it took me a long time to be able to relax when he was behind the wheel.

    My jaw would actually be sore by the time we got out the car because I’d have it clenched so tightly unconsciously and only release it once we’d stopped.

  • Tabitha June 16th, 2011 at 4:09 AM #3

    So this is how I understand the relation between trauma and eating disorders:

    Trauma gets you involved in depression and makes you less probable to pay attention to things.So this could lead to a withdrawal from eating or may even make you eat in an unhealthy manner thereby causing eating disorders.

    Is this right? The relation seems like a vicious one that could really cause serious problems for a person.

  • Bev June 16th, 2011 at 4:29 AM #4

    Aren’t most eating disorders directly asssociated with feelings of needing control anyway?
    I mean someone who has been through any kind of traumatic event in their life could feel out of control and like they have had no say so in how their lives have gone.
    An eating disorder could make them feel a little more control of something.

  • C Edwards June 16th, 2011 at 1:37 PM #5

    Even nature preys in a cruel manner,doesn’t it?People with already existing problems are so much more prone to a spate of newer problems! It disturbs me just thinking about it.

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