Post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of anxiety disorder that results after exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor, possibly involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or threat to one’s physical integrity. In addition to this diagnostic criterion, children can develop PTSD after experiencing inappropriate sexual experiences, even if there is no threat of actual violence or injury.
PTSD is linked to several other disorders like depression, anxiety and panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders and physical symptoms of chronic pain. The noteworthy correlation between PTSD and eating disorders is often less talked about. There is a great deal of statistical evidence supporting the relationships between PTSD and the later development of an eating disorder.
A 1998 report from the International Journal of Eating Disorders showed that an average of 74% of women being treated for an eating disorder had also experienced a major trauma in their life, and around 52% of women being treated for eating disorders reported to having symptoms consistent with those that define a PTSD diagnosis.
Why Does Trauma and PTSD Increase One’s Risk for Eating Disorders?
One of the biggest symptoms of PTSD is re-experiencing or reliving the traumatic event. Recurring and intrusive flashbacks, recollections and nightmares can haunt an individual for years after the initial trauma. In some cases, individuals can experience dissociation, where they lose touch with reality and relive the moment. Eating disorders often develop as an attempt to avoid negative feelings or cope with these issues. Eating disorders can serve as an escape from these negative psychological states and emotional pain and they can also provide a feeling of relief or pleasure.
Victims of trauma, especially victims of physical and sexual abuse, have a strong desire for control since that was taken from them during their traumatic experiences. With an eating disorder, the individual is able to play the role of the victim, which gives them complete control over the entire situation. The individual can channel his or her recurring and intrusive symptoms of PTSD through means of dissociation and distraction. Starving one’s self, using laxatives, binging and purging can provide a soothing feeling of release for a victim of trauma because he or she is able to inflict his or her anger and pain upon his or her own body. This can help distract and dissociate the individual from the initial trauma. In the end, the individual can also alleviate his or her feelings of pain and victimization because he or she is the one in control.
Eating disorders are therapeutic for individuals with PTSD because individuals become preoccupied with maintaining their controlled eating behaviors, such as thinking about what they will eat, counting calories, planning their binging and purging and weighing and measuring themselves. This can help them to temporarily escape from their recurring symptoms of PTSD. Eating disorders take over an individual’s time, physical energy and psychological focus to the point where there is little to no time left to focus or experience symptoms of PTSD. Currently, there are few treatment options available for co-occurring PTSD and eating disorders. When PTSD symptoms are diagnosed and treated, it becomes much easier to treat the eating disorder since the root cause of the issue has been addressed.