Eating Disorders

Traumatic Experiences and their Relationship with Eating Disorders

We often connect eating disorders to body dissatisfaction brought on by societal standards of beauty. However, the root of eating disorder are often more tangled and complicated. In addition to body image issues, victims of eating disorders often struggle to maintain control over their lives, bodies, and diets. As a result, there exists a connection between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and eating disorders. In other words, traumatic experiences–most often prolonged–can lead to the development of an eating disorder.Trauma victims seek to gain control over their lives and eating disorders provides a channel, through associated behaviors such as calorie counting.

Dr. Judy Scheel, whose work focuses on the research and prevention of eating disorders, states that 30% of individuals with eating disorders have suffered sexual abuse. Scheel also summarizes the Psychiatric Times article, “The Links Between PTSD and Eating Disorders,” by Timothy D. Brewerton, in which Brewerton discusses data collected from multiple studies. In particular, Scheel cites Brewerton when he says, “74% of 293 women attending residential treatment indicated that they had experienced a significant trauma, and 52% reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of current PTSD based on their responses on a PTSD symptom scale.” These data points reveal the link between post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), traumatic experiences that most often lead to eating disorders are: sexual abuse at a young age, domestic abuse (victims and observers), and other experiences that cause PTSD. The article also states, “Bulimia, in particular, has been connected to trauma as a means of self-protection, because the binge/purge cycle of behaviors seem to reduce awareness of thoughts and emotions as a means of escape for several of the emotions that may accompany traumatic experiences.”

Furthermore, Scheel mentions that sexual abuse victims often project their feelings of shame attached to their experience onto their bodies. Scheel explains this by providing a hypothetical example, in which a woman associates the glance of a man with that of her abuser and projects the feelings of shame onto her body. This creates in her mind negative body image issues and causes her to binge and purge.

This occurrence is not strictly limited to victims of sexual abuse a survey of 642 male veterans revealed that there was a strong correlation between military trauma and the manifestation of eating disorder symptoms. This finding demonstrates the need for increased awareness about the demographics of individuals afflicted by eating disorders. In other words, we need to overlook common misconceptions about eating disorder patients being primarily female. This can be accomplished through further research and increased diversity in the media coverage of eating disorders.


“Military-Related Trauma Associated With Eating Disorders,” (2017, October 2). Psychiatry Advisor. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from

Scheel, J. (2016, March 29). PTSD and Its Relationship to Eating Disorders. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 14, 2017, from

“Trauma and Eating Disorders,” (2012). National Eating Disorders Association.  Retrieved November 14, 2017, from