3 Reasons Why Eating Disorder Treatment Must Address Trauma

In modern-day eating disorder treatment centers and the general mental health community, the importance of treating underlying conditions has become almost as important as treating the direct symptoms of a disorder. By treating the underlying causes, a longer-term and more complete recovery can be achieved, improving the client’s quality of life. A common cause of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder is past trauma and the PTSD symptoms it causes.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is the feeling left behind in a person after experiencing a terrifying, negatively emotional, or violent situation that affects a person’s ability to function normally. In the past, it was commonly associated with soldiers who had been in combat, and although this is a very visible form of PTSD, the psychological and psychiatric communities have altered the public perception. More recently we’ve come to understand that a wide range of experiences can cause trauma, which then turns into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some examples (aside from combat) which can contribute to this in both the short- and long-term include:

  • A divorce or bad breakup (or witnessing your parents’ divorce)
  • Being fired or laid off
  • Being ejected or failing out of school
  • Being robbed or mugged
  • Being in a car accident
  • Witnessing a violent crime
  • Being violent
  • Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • A death in the family or a close friend

How Does Trauma Relate to Eating Disorder Recovery?

Trauma is a well-known causative factor

One of the most common contributing factors for eating disorders is PTSD and emotional distress caused by past trauma.While recent trauma can trigger disordered eating behaviors, past trauma is just as powerful a cause for eating disorders. In most cases, childhood trauma is something the client has been dealing with for years, and one of the focal points of their treatment plan at an eating disorder treatment facility.

One frequent childhood trauma that directly factors into the formation of an eating disorder is “weight-shaming” during childhood and adolescence. If a person’s parents or schoolmates say things like, “you’re so chubby, don’t eat so much” or try to bully them, this can lead to recurring body image issues. The sense of shame about their body and desire to lose weight no matter the cost are key causative factors in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Trauma treatment is part of an evidence-based treatment system

When eating disorder treatment was a relatively new field of psychiatric study, a mix of medication and psychiatric care was used to treat patients. Recently, however, eating disorder treatment centers tend to focus on evidence-based treatments. These treatments are usually cognitive retraining programs based on decades’ worth of real-world therapy research.

While free-form discussions with a therapist or in a group therapy setting have their place, specialized techniques like Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) can also be introduced. CPT teaches the individual to isolate and identify their traumatic experiences and the feelings that surround them. This helps them understand that these experiences have contributed to the onset of the eating disorder. In later sessions, through a back-and-forth with a trained therapist, they can start to remove the negative feelings surrounding these memories.

Trauma treatment helps a long-term recovery by avoiding triggers for relapse.

Left untreated, the negative thoughts and feelings that come with PTSD are powerful triggers for a relapse of the disordered behaviors that define eating disorders. In the months and years after leaving an eating disorder treatment center, clients can improve their lives by employing the lessons they learned in the “real world.”

If the symptoms of PTSD aren’t taken care of, the chances of sustaining recovery become much lower. The stresses and negative feelings caused by PTSD are important causative factors, and also one of the most common triggers for a relapse into disordered eating behaviors. By treating trauma symptoms, a recovered person can eliminate a major cause of relapse.

Trauma Treatment Should Be Part of Eating Disorder Recovery

When you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it might feel like the situation is hopeless. However, there are many options for residential as well as outpatient anorexia nervosa treatment and other eating disorder if you know what to look for. Talk to your doctor or therapist and ask for their recommendations. They’ll point you to an appropriate treatment facility, and you can begin the journey to recovery from there.