The Connection Between Complex PTSD and Eating Disorders
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness week, so this seems like a good time to address the connection between complex posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders. Research has shown a very strong correlation between the two. Just as people who live with complex PTSD often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, some people use eating disorders as a form of coping as well.
Having personally lived an eating disorder for many years after childhood trauma, I can agree with the research. It was how I dealt with all of the bad feelings I had about myself and what happened to me. As a child who was constantly told how fat I was, even though I was a healthy weight, I developed the belief that eating was wrong. Over the years, I constantly had a deep sense of guilt whenever I ate. I was also filled with disgust for myself related to the sexual abuse I had been exposed to which eventually led to the compulsion to punish myself through either restricting my intake or purging when I did eat.
My eating disorder was just as complex as the PTSD I live with. For me, starving myself and then purging if I ate was also a form of self-harm. I hated who I was and I hated the little girl inside or me that lived through the sexual abuse I had endured. Shame and anxiety so deeply filled me up that often the only way I could purge myself of those feelings was to purge the food inside of me or to force my body well beyond its limits with exercise. It became a vicious cycle that ultimately resulted in me becoming very malnourished and developing a broken femur.
Recognize the Connection of Eating Disorders and Complex PTSD
Please know that if you live with complex PTSD, it is very common to develop some form of eating disorder, especially if your trauma included sexual abuse. Often, shame keeps people from admitting the eating disorder exists, but there is hope for recovery if you reach out for help.
If you are dealing with an eating disorder, it’s important to understand how hard this is on your body. In order to heal from your trauma, your body needs to be healthy, because an unhealthy body means an unhealthy mind.
It's important to understand that eating disorders come in all forms. Most people are aware of anorexia and bulimia, but if you are binging on large quantities of food, even without purging or restricting when and what you eat, you may be using an eating disorder to cope with your complex PTSD ("What is Binge Eating Disorder?").
The Path to Disconnecting Eating Disorders from Complex PTSD
It took me a long time to confess to my therapist that I had struggled with bulimia since I was 14 years old, but as I started to heal my trauma, I knew I needed to get a handle on my eating disorder to truly move forward in my life as a healthy and whole person. I was very ashamed that it was how I chose to handle my negative emotions, so I stayed silent about it for so long, but as the saying goes, you’re only as sick as your secrets and I had gotten pretty sick.
What I didn’t know then that I want you to know now, is how common eating disorders are for those with complex PTSD. If you live with an eating disorder, know that you are not alone. It’s a very normal response to what you lived through.
If you are dealing with an eating disorder, it’s important to seek help with a trauma-informed therapist. Depending on the severity of your eating disorder, you may need medical intervention to get you on the road to becoming physically healthy first. It’s important, though, to address the trauma as you work on your eating disorder. Once I finally admitted to how poorly I was coping and addressed the trauma, I was able to learn healthy methods to handle my complex PTSD and replace my eating disorder.
As you continue to work on your trauma and the issues that are under your eating disorder, you will need to turn to your eating disorder for comfort less and less. With the rights tools and through making the best choices possible, old unhealthy habits become replaced with new habits that are good for you and will help you cope as the healthiest version of you that you can be.
Powell, T. (2019, February 28). The Connection Between Complex PTSD and Eating Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 11 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2019/2/the-connection-between-complex-ptsd-and-eating-disorders
Author: Traci Powell
This is such an intricately woven connection, but truly makes so much sense. As you talk about with your own experience, it's often that control aspect of ED that links the two. Feeling like you're controlling something when PTSD makes you feel lack of or loss of control. Also, a form of punishment when PTSD ties into some sense of guilt and/or shame. Truly a wise and helpful read. Thank you for posting.