Victims of childhood sexual abuse are significantly more likely to develop eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa as teens or adults. There is considerable commonality between the potential symptoms of sexual trauma and those of bulimia:
- Poor self esteem
- Negative and frequently unreasonable body image angst
- Poor interpersonal effectiveness (communication skills)
- Harmful or non-existent personal boundaries
- Anxiety disorders with or without panic attacks
- Impulse control deficiencies
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
Sexual abuse, especially at a young age, is intensely traumatic, and survivors are at risk for developing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Compulsive behaviors and substance abuse may be used as means of self-comforting as they stimulate the release of pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain.
Treating Bulimia and Sexual Abuse Trauma
Trauma has an effect on the brain that can be compared to the effect of a lightning strike on an electrical system. Some experiences are so difficult to comprehend or to process that the brain simply shuts down certain areas.
This phenomenon seems to act as a sort of defense mechanism that prevents more dramatic and destructive mental breakdowns. People – even children – are surprisingly resilient when it comes to trauma. Reasonable emotional responses are closed off from the conscious mind like painful pictures being locked away in a closet. These suppressed emotions and memories fester in secrecy, and the brain turns to whatever means necessary to find relief.
Successfully treating underlying PTSD and bulimia is a complicated and fragile process. The most successful treatment programs confront both issues as they attempt to allow the brain to unblock itself in relation to the painful memories even while confronting the mentally and physically destructive patterns of bulimia.
All aspects of the patient’s psychological and physical health must be observed, diagnosed and treated if lasting recovery is to be realized. Most programs will involve some or all of the following:
- Individual counseling of various types
- Support group meetings
- Coping skill development
- Exercises designed to identify and correct weaknesses in communication skills
- Spiritual support as appropriate
- Strategic preparation for life after treatment and ongoing sobriety
Treatment is available in both inpatient and outpatient formats. While there are certainly some bulimics who never experienced sexual abuse and there are survivors of abuse who do not become bulimic, the correlations between the two are strong. Women who experienced sexual abuse should be especially watchful about the development of eating disorders or other psychological ramifications of post-traumatic stress. The instinct to keep your difficulties to yourself will perpetuate the destructive patterns of the disease.