The Link Between Trauma and Eating Disorders

September 6, 2015 Ryan Poling, MA, MAT

Trauma and eating disorders are related. After all, it's not unusual for a person who has experienced trauma to develop an eating disorder. Read on to discover how that works.

Trauma and eating disorders are related. It's not unusual for a person who experienced trauma to develop an eating disorder. How does that work? Read this.

When a person experiences a traumatic event, he or she has, in some way, lost control. These traumatic events can come in many forms: a car accident, plane crash, natural disaster, terrorism, sexual abuse, IED explosion, being a first responder on an accident scene, watching someone else die. These are only a few of the hundreds or thousands of situations that may be traumatic for someone who witnesses or experiences them.

One thing all these situations have in common is that the person who experiences them has lost his or her sense of control. But why is maintaining a sense of control so important?

Treatment Program: Ryan Poling, MA, writes on behalf of Sierra Tucson, a Tucson, Arizona-based treatment center that provides comprehensive residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient care for eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, chronic pain, addictions, and mood and anxiety disorders.

Food, Water, Shelter

insert alt textIn 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper about human motivation wherein he described his now-famous hierarchy of needs. At the base of the hierarchy is an individual’s basic physiological needs, such as food, water, and shelter. Once a person has these needs met, he or she is then free to move up the hierarchy to the next need, which is safety, then up through love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

According to Maslow, a person must satisfy each lower-level need before moving into a higher-level need. For example, a person would not seek out self-actualization without first having food and water. When a need is not met, a person would move back down the hierarchy until he or she is at a level where the need is met.

Consider a person who has not eaten for a few days; he or she cares much less about building relationships than about finding food. While the model certainly is not perfect — some people would be happy to pass on a meal if an opportunity for sex presented itself — it can be useful for discussing how trauma, control, and eating disorders are related.

A Safe Place

So what do safety and control have to do with eating disorders? When a person experiences a traumatic event, his or her sense of safety and control is profoundly violated. Traumatic events destroy a person’s sense of security. A terrorist’s bomb now makes one’s walk to work feel life-threatening. Being physically abused can destroy one’s trust in relationships. A tornado can shred a town into toothpicks and rubble. All of these experiences feel profoundly unsafe and out-of-control.

Safety and control, according to Maslow, are fundamental needs, second only to food, water, and shelter. If a traumatic event represents a loss of safety and control, then a person will naturally move down the hierarchy until he or she is able to meet a need. However, because safety is such a foundational need, the only place for a person to go is down to the base of the hierarchy, and at the base of the hierarchy is one’s need for food and water.

Regaining Control

While the causes of an eating disorder can be complex, many mental health experts agree that eating disorders can arise partly out of an attempt to regain control in one’s life. For example, a person struggling with anorexia may restrict her food intake because eating may feel like the only area of her life where she can exercise control.

As described above, trauma represents a fundamental loss of control, so it is only natural, then, that a person would respond to trauma by moving down Maslow’s hierarchy and attempting to exercise control over his or her food intake, and thus maintaining control over his or her emotional reaction to the trauma as well. In order to heal from an eating disorder, many people need to feel as though control has been restored to them.

Eating disorders may be linked to feelings of loss of control brought on by trauma, so in order to recover from an eating disorder, a person may benefit from being in an environment that feels safe and controlled. Thankfully eating disorders and the effects of trauma can be treated in the context of an eating disorder treatment center with a caring and highly-experienced staff. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and the effects of trauma, make sure to speak with treatment professionals and find a treatment center that feels like a safe and welcoming place to heal. (Why Residential Eating Disorders Treatment May Be Best Option)

APA Reference
Poling, R. (2015, September 6). The Link Between Trauma and Eating Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Ryan Poling, MA, MAT

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