Plus How to Treat Trauma Triggered Eating Disorders

Millions of Americans suffer from eating disorders like Anorexia, Binge Eating and Bulimia. Many factors can contribute to the onset of an eating disorder, such as family history or body dysmorphia, but one of the most common links is that with childhood trauma. 

In other words, a self-enforced physical malnourishment may reflect a lack of emotional nourishment given by others, particularly from caregivers. 

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Eating Disorders

This link is not surprising and is actually well documented. Children who experience emotional, physical or sexual abuse are more likely to develop psychological issues, including body image and eating disorders. One study published in the May 2012 issue of The Journal of Clinical Nursing interviewed patients receiving treatment for eating disorders and documented this link, showing that trauma proved to be a powerful trigger for eating disorders. 

The biggest traumatic predictors in regards to eating disorders are:

  • Emotional abuse (particularly at the hands of parents/caregivers)
  • Physical abuse
  • Neglect

Why Eating Disorders?

Childhood trauma causes many behaviors. One of the most well-known is what society has dubbed as “acting out.” Other symptoms of childhood trauma include depression, anxiety, self-harm and social isolation. Eating disorders run in this same thread of psychological disorders. Like these other behaviors, eating disorders often stem from the need to control one’s environment. 

A child who has experienced trauma can’t control that abuse or neglect, but they can control what they eat and how they act toward others. Let’s dive into some possible examples of how an eating disorder can be triggered by trauma.

Children who have experienced emotional abuse may develop low self-esteem which can lead to body image issues. They may turn to anorexia (heavily limiting what you eat) as a way to deal with their poor body image.

Eating is considered a nourishing act by many cultures. Children who experience neglect or abuse may turn to binge eating or bulimia (binging and then purging) as an act of self-nourishment to make up for the lack of emotional nourishment they are receiving or have received by the adults in their lives. Some may even view eating as an escape from their emotional distress caused by trauma. 

Food could even serve as an addiction for children with trauma, much like drugs or alcohol may be used as a coping mechanism. Children with trauma may experience an emotional “high” from binge eating and can become compulsive.

The Effects of Eating Disorders

The effects of eating disorders can compound the effects of childhood trauma and those with an eating disorder are at a higher risk for developing:

  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Conditions resulting from micronutrient deficiencies
  • Osteoporosis
  • Certain types of cancers (such as esophageal cancer from purging)

Besides these physical health issues, there are also co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety or other dissociative pathology. To remove themselves even further from the trauma they experienced, they may also develop a substance or alcohol use disorder. 

Because of this, treating eating disorders is often a long-term recovery. 

Treating Trauma Triggered Eating Disorders

When treating any eating disorder, it’s key to approach the subject with openness and without judgment. If your child is already receiving treatment for childhood trauma, let your team know that you suspect an eating disorder has developed. 

Once the problem has been identified, your child’s primary care doctor and therapist are a great place to start. There will most likely be many professionals involved in treatment and recovery from trauma triggered eating disorders. Your child’s doctor may prescribe nutritional supplements to deal with resulting nutrient deficiencies while your therapist deals with the emotional aspects of an eating disorder. Other professionals and settings may be involved as well, such as a trauma-informed eating disorder clinic, registered dieticians, and even group therapy. 

Remember, you cannot treat the eating disorder without working on the underlying cause of the eating disorder–in this case, childhood trauma. Your child will need your continued unconditional love and support during this time of healing. Part of this support is being a guide for your child with trauma, showing them healthier ways to process their trauma. Your child will also heal in their own time, not on your schedule. So be patient with them as they learn to cope with their trauma in better ways and eventually heal and live a full and productive life.