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The Link Between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders often appear in combination with other mental health disorders, such anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance abuse. Many studies have also found a link between previous traumatic experiences, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the development of eating disorders.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be induced by experiencing a very frightening, distressing or traumatic event, such as a serious road accident, bullying during childhood, sexual abuse, etc. People with PTSD suffer from flashbacks and nightmares of that particular incident, insomnia, difficulty in concentrating, and feelings of depression and seclusion.

The eating disorder may appear as a handling tool towards the traumatic episode in order to manage the pain and the emotional distress associated with the event.  Research shows that people suffering from PTSD have a strong need to control their lives, and might find this control through extreme dieting and weight-management. Gaining control over a specific situation, their eating behaviour, gives them a feeling of general control. What might seem as way to cope with the traumatic experience, it can grow into a severe eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, where people restrict their food intake.

Since PTSD is an anxiety disorder, people that suffer from this illness may experience gastrointestinal disturbances associated with stressors, such as stomach cramps and digestive issues. Individuals might, therefore, starve themselves to avoid experiencing the side effects of eating with an upset stomach, and perceive the physical pain of hunger as better.

It is very important for therapists to understand the foundation of this pain or trauma, as it can be crucial to the path to eating disorder recovery. Researchers suggest that doctors should monitor their PTSD patients cautiously for any marks that suggest they may be trying to manage their condition by controlling their diet. Likewise, doctors should monitor eating disorder patients for any prior traumatic experiences.

Citation: Brewerton, T.D. (2007). Eating Disorders, Trauma, and Comorbidity: Focus on PTSD. Eating Disorders, 15 (4), 285-304
*Disclaimer - Results may vary from person to person

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