Sexual trauma can have numerous psychological and physical effects on a survivor. These may include depression, anxiety, PTSD, nightmares, substance abuse, and chronic pain to name a few. Disordered eating has also been found to be connected to sexual trauma.
What is Disordered Eating?
Disordered eating can be defined as irregular eating patterns, and there are many different ways it can appear. Disordered eating is not an eating disorder, but it can quickly turn into a clinical eating disorder if the symptoms are not addressed early on.
One type of diagnosable eating disorder is called bulimia nervosa. This is when the individual goes through phases of binging and purging. Bulimia behaviors may include self-induced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives, etc… Anorexia nervosa is a different eating disorder wherein the individual severely restricts the amount of food they eat. People with anorexia typically (not always) have an abnormally low body weight and an intense fear of weight gain.
Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by eating large quantities of food (typically in short periods of time) without using purging methods such as the ones used by individuals with bulimia nervosa. The individual may feel like they’re eating and eating with little to no control.
While these are some of the better known clinical eating disorders, there are many others that are very common in society.
The Connection Between Sexual Trauma and Disordered Eating
Some individuals who develop an eating disorder may be unintentionally turning to disordered eating patterns as a way to cope with emotional problems caused by trauma. The connection between sexual violence and eating disorders is very complex to pinpoint, but many individuals who develop eating disorders have a history of trauma indicating the two are likely correlated.
Eating disorders can serve as a distraction from the emotions the survivor may be experiencing.
Following sexual assault, the survivor may experience feelings of guilt and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. In order to avoid some of these symptoms, the person may turn to food intake or restricting food as a distraction.
Eating habits serve as a distraction because when humans eat, neurotransmitters – such as dopamine and endorphins – are released in the brain, and they quickly make the individual feel pleasure or numbness. These effects are short lived which perpetuates types of disordered eating.
Additionally, survivors may believe that reaching a certain weight will lead to happiness; however, societal standards and social media promote unrealistic expectations of thinness and body image goals that are not attainable for many people. It is a common belief that fitting these expectations will bring someone happiness, but research indicates that focusing on such factors actually negatively impacts a person’s level of happiness.
Eating (or not eating) may also be a way of further denying the sexual trauma that the survivor has lived through. Disordered eating requires thought and time which can prevent the person from experiencing other negative thoughts.
Disordered eating gives the survivor a sense of control
After someone experiences sexual assault, they may notice that their anxiety levels have increased because they may have felt as though they did not have any control over the situation during the sexual assault. They may also feel a sense of disconnection from their body.
Eating disorders are a way survivors may engage in self-blame or self-punishment. They may not feel worthy of food which leads to restrictive eating behaviors or purging habits. Using self-punishment, they have control over what they decide they do and do not “deserve.”
Disordered eating may be used as a protective mechanism
Some survivors explain that they feel safer from predators when they experience weight change. In the case of gaining weight, they feel their weight acts as a shield. This is relevant for weight loss as well. People with a vagina who experience unhealthy eating behaviors may lose their breasts, hips, and stop menstruating. This could serve as a way of unconsciously avoiding sexuality or even being sexual.
Signs and Symptoms
Recovery is more likely if an eating disorder is caught early; therefore, being able to recognize the signs of disordered eating is extremely important. There are both physical and emotional tells that may indicate that someone is struggling with disordered eating.
- Weight change
The individual may have significant weight fluctuations. Whether it is weight loss or gaining weight, this factor is key in helping identify disordered eating.
- Feeling dizzy, out of it, or tired
The person may not have high levels of energy. They may even experience fainting.
- Changes in menstruation
While eating disorders can impact any gender, individuals with a vagina may experience irregularities in menstruation including missed periods or menstruation may stop all together.
- Dental Problems
In the case of bulimia nervosa, the individual may have acid-related dental problems caused by purging.
- Excessive exercise
Disordered eating is often associated with extreme workout habits. The individual may workout multiple times a day in an attempt to lose weight.
- Extreme concern with weight and body image
The individual may become very focused on managing (or minimizing) caloric intake, dieting, weight loss, and body image.
- Avoiding social activities where food is involved
The person may try to avoid situations where they need to eat in front of others or when they know food will be involved.
- Developing food rituals
An individual with an eating disorder may only eat food in a specific order or a specific way. They may do this in a way that makes the food seem less appealing.
Recovering from Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders
Recovering from an eating disorder can be a long process, but it is possible and worth it.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate in terms of mental disorders. They significantly impact one’s physical health, and they can become fatal very quickly. Everyone’s experience with disordered eating is different, so it is best to work with a treatment team on an individualized treatment plan.
Maladaptive eating behaviours can develop for many reasons, and sexual trauma has been seen as a common catalyst. If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating patterns, don’t hesitate to seek help as soon as possible.