Some trauma survivors would describe themselves as healthy, lean and fit, while others feel trapped in a body that they find uncomfortable or unacceptable to themselves. There some survivors that have a healthy lifestyle of moderate exercise, healthy nutrition and adequate sleep. However, some have secret habits that are harmful, and merely give them the temporary appearance of fitness, while their health is slowly dissipating. What are these secret, harmful habits?

The answer is eating disorders. Some people use an eating disorder as a coping mechanism. For example, an alcoholic uses alcohol to cope. Likewise, a person with an eating disorder uses binge eating, purging or restricting their food to cope with their distress. Eating disorders have complex roots and are usually related to exposure to trauma, low self-esteem, depression, loss of control, worthlessness, identity confusion, family dysfunction and a lack of coping skills (de Groot & Rodin, 1999; Nagata et al, 1999).

Many people with eating disorders report a history of emotional abuse, such as being teased or ridiculed about their size, weight, or their body’s sexual characteristics (Kent, Waller & Dagnan, 1999; Kent & Waller, 2000). Cultural and media pressures which place more value on thinness and appearance rather than inner qualities are factors in the growing trend of eating disorders (Wonderlich et al, 2001). There are generally three recognized categories of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Compulsive Overeating/Binge eating (APA, 1994;Schneer, 2002).

Starving Yourself to Death

Anorexia is a disorder in which the individual severely restricts their food intake to the point they become underweight. The anorexia sufferer has an intense fear of any actual gain or even perceived gain of weight. They have body image distortions and believe they are fat, while other people perceive them as too thin. They use their restrictive eating to feel a sense of control over their life. Serious mood and thinking disturbances occur with Anorexia, which can complicate the recovery process from traumatic events. The behaviors of Anorexia include extremely restrictive dieting, compulsive exercise, and sometimes laxative or diuretic abuse. Serious health consequences often occur and if Anorexia Nervosa is left untreated, it can be fatal (Rodriguez-Srednicki, 2001; Wonderlich et al, 2000).

Binge and Purge and Do It All Over Again

Bulimia sufferers repeat an addictive binge eating and purging cycle. They eat compulsively and then purge through self-induced vomiting, uses of laxatives, diuretics, strict diets, fasts, vigorous exercise, or other compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain. Binges usually consist of the consumption of large amounts of high calorie food in a short period of time. Binge eating often occurs in secret. Bulimics, like Anorexics, are also obsessively involved with their body shape and weight. Like Anorexia, Bulimia causes severe mood and thinking disturbances and chemical imbalances in the brain.

This severely compromises the victim’s ability to make progress in therapy to help them recover from traumatic events. The medical complications of the binge-purge cycle can be severe and like Anorexia can also be fatal. Therefore, therapy for the eating disorder often must happen first or concurrently to the therapy for trauma in order for progress to be made (Steiger et al, 2001; Waller et al, 2001).

Food for Mood Control

Compulsive Overeaters have a vicious cycle of binge eating and depression. Food is used as a coping tool to deal with moods. Binge eating temporarily relieves the stress of these feelings, but is sometimes followed by feelings of guilt, shame, disgust, self-loathing and depression. Binge eating, like Bulimia, often occurs in secret. It is common for Compulsive Overeaters to eat normally or restrictively in front of others and then binge in secret. For other Compulsive Overeaters, there is a pattern of “grazing” on foods all day long. Like the other eating disorders, Compulsive Overeaters are chronically unhappy with their weight. One compulsive overeater said she had to consult her “scale God” to see how she would feel each day.

It is common for the number on the scale to determine how eating disorder sufferers will feel about themselves. Medical complications can also be severe and even life-threatening for Compulsive Overeaters. Some trauma survivors have expressed that they became compulsive overeaters after a traumatic event. In some cases weight gain is an attempt to “hide” their attractiveness and sexuality, and feel safer. For other survivors of trauma, compulsive overeating becomes a way to cope or nurture themselves through their pain. However, true nurturing is taking really good care of your health through proper nutrition, exercise, and medical care (Ochberg, 1988; Wonderlich et al, 2001).Each year, millions of people in the United States suffer life-threatening eating disorders.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association ( there are six to sixteen million people in the United States afflicted with Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. There are no accurate estimates for compulsive overeating. The occurrence of eating disorders among college age women can be considered epidemic. Conservative estimates suggest between 19% and 30% of this age group display Bulimic behavior. Unfortunately, there are trends suggesting that eating disorders are affecting increasing younger children.

It is estimated that currently 11% of high school students may have a diagnosable eating disorder. Athletes, dancers, gymnasts and airline employees may face a greater risk for developing an eating disorder. Women and men in “appearance” sports or dancing, like ballet, gymnastics or figure skating, state that their thin and wiry appearance plays a key role in their success. Of females who participate in these types of activities, 62% have been reported to have eating disorders. Most people with eating disorders suffer for many years in secret.

Sadly, eating disorders are among the deadliest of mental health disorders, 10% or more die as a result of starvation, cardiac arrest, or suicide (APA, 1994; Wonderlich et al, 2001). However, there is reason to hope. Eating disorders are most successfully treated with early diagnosis. Lifelong recovery from an eating disorder is possible with professional intervention. If you or someone you love may be suffering from an eating disorder, please seek professional help as soon as possible and get started back on a road toward health and well-being.

Article Courtesy of Gift From Within-PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers


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