Eating disorders affect millions of people in the UK alone. The people who are suffering from an eating disorder are diverse, from all ages and every different background. But there is likely to be one thing that links all of these different cases, and that is trauma. To understand what trauma is, how we deal with it and how it might lead to an eating disorder, read on. 



What is trauma? 


Trauma can be defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It’s impossible to compile a list of traumas, as what’s traumatic for some is not the same for others. However, what these experiences do share in common is that a strong emotional reaction will be present at the time. 

Trauma experiences are stored in the brain so that it can recognise a similar situation in the future. If the brain recognises a similar threat then it wants us to take action to avoid it happening again. So how does this affect us from an eating disorder point of view? Well emotions are what drive our behaviour, and our emotions are an automatic response to a situation. If we have a pattern in place that triggers an emotion, say for example of insecurity, and our brain’s response to that emotion is to eat, or to restrict food, then at that moment we will strongly feel that we need to carry out that behaviour.  



What kind of traumas affect eating disorders?  


Although the common denominator between eating disorders is likely to be trauma, the range of traumas driving them is vast. However, in our experience, the four main areas of trauma that lead to eating disorders are: 

  • Being criticised about weight or appearance especially at a critical age – 14-17  
  • Having a parent with their own food issues criticising food choices or amounts 
  • An association of food being linked to comfort or attention 
  • Being in a controlling situation, where restricting or bingeing on food is a way of taking back control 

So let’s explore each of these a little bit more. 



Criticism about our appearance 


As a teenager, if someone tells you that you’re fat, then your emotional brain will react very badly. As humans, we need to fit in and belong to a group of people – community is a basic emotional need. Being told we don’t fit in with our herd, because we’re ‘different’, especially as a teenager, when we are beginning to find our place in the world, outside of our family, will be considered a major threat by the brain. This means that it will be stored away as a traumatic experience. And as such, we will develop a behaviour that will stop us being in that position again. An incident like this can lead to poor self-image, poor self-esteem and body dysmorphia. 

This is an obvious example and one that many people will easily identify as the start of an eating disorder. However, there are lots of far less obvious scenarios that can provoke a strong enough reaction to be a problem. 



Inheriting food issues from parents 


Frequently, children of parents with eating disorders or unhealthy relationships to food, go on to develop eating disorders themselves. This can start out as a general concern that a child might become overweight. However, over time, if constantly being warned about overeating, a child won’t develop their own cues around food. This can create a disconnect between food as fuel and what it represents to us emotionally. As parents, we naturally want the best for our children, and want them to be happy. The problem can be that if a parent is already struggling with food issues it is likely that they will pass this fear onto their child. 

Additionally a parent’s own body dysmorphia can cause them to be overly critical of a child, when they may simply be going through different developmental stages. It is extremely common for perfectly healthy children to go through periods where they are carrying a little more weight. This often resolves itself as they grow in height, and their bodies can change dramatically. During these times, if a child’s appearance is criticised or they’re told to eat less, this can create an unbalanced attitude to food. Thus a child may want to eat ‘forbidden’ foods, or want to restrict food because this will be praised.  



Associating food with comfort or security 


This is one that most people can resonate with. We nearly all associate food with memories of family, warmth and comfort, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Were you ever given a chocolate bar as a child when sweets were perhaps extremely rare? If so, it’s likely that that chocolate bar created a great deal of happiness. In this example, it is very easy for our brain to set up a link between chocolate and feeling happy. From this point it is a small step for us to turn to chocolate when we feel sad, in a bid to create that feeling of happiness. Of course, in reality, if we are genuinely unhappy in our life, then the bar of chocolate is not going to change this. However we may persist in eating chocolate to curb unhappiness, without consciously realising that we are doing that. 

If course this is just an example. There are many situations that can cause a link to comfort or receiving attention from a family member. It could well be that the behaviours around food that are causing you issues, are in fact linked to something as simple as the example above. 



Using food to control your environment 


Many issues around food begin in childhood. Parents generally find that children and their food is one of the more contentious areas of their upbringing. Children learn very quickly that them eating food is important to their caregiver. Children as a rule, do not have a great deal of control. However, the food that they put into their bodies is one of them. 

We are all doing the best that we can do in any situation. If a parent is struggling, perhaps with trauma, anxiety or depression, they are likely feeling out of control. Being another of our basic emotional needs, we will try to control our environment and potentially other people around us. Children in this environment will also need to gain a sense of control, and may use food to get it. 



How can the root cause of an eating disorder be identified? 


Firstly, it should be said that the root cause of an eating disorder may well be several of the above.  Sometimes there is just one main driver behind the food issues and sometimes there are multiple issues. 

Therapeutic techniques vary widely. It is common practice to tackle food issues by targeting the practical side of food. This may focus on the activity itself such as counting calories or following strict diet plans. It may also require the sufferer to monitor their behaviour, perhaps providing distraction techniques. These techniques rely on the sufferer to ‘police’ their behaviour, which can be difficult for them to keep up. In our sessions we use different techniques to identify the emotions that lie behind food issues. Emotions are what drive us to action, and it’s these that cause automatic behaviours. Once we identify which experiences are linked we can help the sufferer to separate the experience from the current behaviour. This is often all it takes for the unconscious need to binge or restrict food to fall away. 



Get some specialist help 


If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone! There is support out there. We work in partnership with Shanmack Wellness as the inhouse therapist. This program offers support, mindset coaching, training and therapy as an all-round solution to help people beat eating disorders, get fit and take back their lives.

I hope you have found this information about eating disorders helpful. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.

With very best wishes


Book your free phone consultation for proven therapy that works


Share This