Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Eating Disorders

PTSD and eating disorders often co-occur, particularly as individuals suffering from an eating disorder usually report a history of trauma.

Research suggests that engagement in eating disorder behaviors may be a method of coping with the discomforting emotions and experiences correlated with PTSD.  Thus, the chances are great that an individual who has suffered traumatic events will develop an eating disorder as a means of controlling or coping with their emotions.

Studies have shown significant links between patients who suffered abuse and the later development of an eating disorder.

  • 74% of 293 women attending residential eating disorder treatment indicated that they had experienced a significant trauma
  • 52% reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of current PTSD based on their responses on a PTSD symptom scale

Since eating disorders may develop as a method of dealing with an overwhelming tragedy or trauma, it is essential that both disorders be addressed simultaneously in treatment to resolve the underlying issues.  Effective treatments for both conditions would ideally occur under the care of experienced professionals in an accredited center for eating disorders, and address the medical, nutritional, and therapeutic processes of care for these illnesses.

One of the primary purposes of eating disorder behavior is to avoid and cope with painful, disquieting or uncomfortable feelings or affect. The eating disorder serves both to distance oneself from these feelings or states as well as to relieve them. From an abuse perspective, the eating disorder is a clever  means to accomplish both distance and numbing as well as a means to relive the painful past events through a recreation of it through the eating disorder behaviors.

What is important to keep in mind is that assumptions cannot be made about the development of an eating disorder; triggers are unique to the individual sufferer. Clearly, for all eating disorder sufferers there are unique causes, of one kind or another, which has lead to the development of their specific behavior. The impact of relationships and parenting in the development of self-concept and self-esteem, family dynamics, biological depression and anxiety, cultural and societal pressures about weight and body image particularly for women, physical and/or sexual abuse, are all contributors in the development of eating disorders. All are significant. Which apply is unique to the individual.

Source: Brewerton, T. “The Links Between PTSD and Eating Disorders.” 2008. Psychiatric Times.