Often times, traumatic experiences in one’s life can elicit high levels of stress and anxiety, which can lead to destructive ways of coping. When high levels of stress and anxiety from a painful or disturbing experience persist for long periods of time and make it difficult to complete daily responsibilities, individuals may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The pain felt from difficult moments in one’s life can lead to using food as a way of coping with difficult emotions and feelings associated with the individual’s trauma.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychological disorder characterized by chronic levels of fear, stress, and anxiety caused by a painful or disturbing experience. Individuals may experience recurrent flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts associated with their traumatic event. Painful emotions may arise from the intrusive thoughts associated with the traumatic experience and can lead to individuals trying to cope by engaging in destructive behaviors, such as disordered ways of eating.
Understanding the causes and symptoms of PTSD can aid individuals suffering from PTSD and an eating disorder to seek the help they deserve for their co-occurring disorder.
Causes of PTSD
A traumatic event may be caused by a wide range of social, environmental, or situational stressors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following are some examples of traumatic events that individuals may experience:
- Experiencing or watching a loved one go through a dangerous or difficult event.
- Getting hurt emotionally or physically.
- Having a painful childhood experience.
- Witnessing a close loved one hurt.
- Dealing with high levels of stress caused environmental or social factors.
- Being diagnosed with a psychological disorder or substance use disorder.
Symptoms of PTSD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, individuals are diagnosed with PTSD if they display the following symptoms for at least one month:
- Re-experiencing painful flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts from the event.
- Avoiding certain people, places, or things that lead to disturbing thoughts or memories from the event.
- Forgetting one’s own thoughts or feelings about the traumatic event.
- Attempting to feel numbness from the mention or thought of the event.
- Disengaging from close friends and family that may have a connection with the event.
- Having feelings of intense stress or anxiety.
- Being easily startled or frightened by a person, place, or thing.
- Experiencing trouble sleeping.
- Questioning one’s self-worth.
- Displaying negative thoughts or depressed emotions.
- Removing previously enjoyed activities from one’s life.
If individuals do not know how to cope with their trauma in a productive way, it can consume their lives and lead to unhealthy behaviors, including disordered eating patterns.
PTSD and Eating Disorders
According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, “PTSD prevalence in Eating Disorder patients is about 24.3%, confirming the comorbidity between both disorders.” Traumatic experiences in one’s life can lead to a concern over one’s body image and self-esteem and can result in individuals using destructive eating methods to cope with their difficult moments. These individuals may try to cope with environmental and social stressors by not eating enough, purging, or binge eating. People diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder may feel helpless and defeated by their traumatic events.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, people with eating disorders exhibit a “predisposition to stress” because they are already consumed by their own negative thoughts and emotions surrounding their self-image and this often leads to a loss of self-control. Additionally, half of all of those suffering from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder also suffer from an anxiety disorder. Heightened levels of anxiety can lead to engaging in destructive eating habits to feel numbness and mask the pain felt from the traumatic experience.
There is a strong link between the stress caused by a traumatic experience and destructive eating behaviors. Research has shown that individuals with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder have higher rates of PTSD than people without an eating disorder. Purging and binge eating behaviors may be used to replace the painful emotions caused by a traumatic experience and can cause individuals to regulate their feelings by trying to achieve the ‘ideal body type’. These overwhelming emotions that are caused by the stress and anxiety associated with trauma can consume a person’s ability to think and behave in a healthy and rational manner.
Individuals diagnosed with PTSD and an eating disorder may try to cope with trauma by excessively exercising, not eating at all, purging, or binge eating. All of these destructive behaviors can be extremely impulsive and can lead to a wide range of mental and health consequences. Professionals must recognize the urgency for treating this co-occurring diagnosis by using researched based psychotherapy techniques and an individualized recovery plan that seeks to nourish and restore the individual’s mind, body, and spirit.
Effective Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders
Being diagnosed with PTSD and an eating disorder can be extremely debilitating if individuals do not get the professional treatment that they deserve. An individualized treatment plan that is focused on reducing the stress and anxiety associated with the traumatic experience will allow individuals to effectively cope with their difficult moments. An effective comprehensive treatment program emphasizes whole person care and seeks to help individuals learn self soothing strategies and psychotherapy techniques needed in replacing negative thoughts and behaviors with positive solutions.
Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists are highly trained professionals who are equipped to help individuals establish self-soothing techniques, mindfulness strategies, meal plans, and personalized coping mechanisms learned through methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to best treat any co-occurring disorder. Specialists empathize with each patient and create a personalized recovery plan that fits the needs of every individual. With an emphasis on cultivating self-compassion and feeding the mind, body, and spirit with healthful nutrients, individuals will build the resiliency needed to fully recover from their co-occurring disorder.
Greta Gleissner is the Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide network of eating disorder treatment specialists that provide meal coaching and recovery skills such as CBT, DBT, ACT, MI, etc. EDRS works alongside treatment programs, teams and families to provide transitional aftercare support for post-residential treatment clients.