If you are reading this, then there is a chance you have some experience with eating disorders. You might be a mental heath professional who works with people suffering from eating disorders, but you could also be someone who has seen the suffering up close and personal, maybe from your own struggle or maybe from the struggle of someone close to you. Whomever it may be, you know too well the trauma, shame, suffering, and challenges that accompanies this illness. People who suffer from eating disorders often need professional attention on multiple levels as well as strong support system in order to experience success in recovery.
Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions which are characterized by abnormal eating patterns that attempt to satisfy a psychological need. The three primary types of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. Anorexia Nervosa involves a restriction of energy intake relative to what is typically required of the individual. People struggling with food anorexia often experience an intense fear of gaining weight or “becoming fat,” as well as a disturbance in the way they experience their body weight and/or shape. Bulimia Nervosa is quite different from anorexia nervosa. For the sake of space, I’ll mention a couple characteristics that are quite common among those suffering from bulimia. In a nutshell, they usually have a recurring pattern of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors in order to prevent weight gain, like vomiting and excessive exercise. Anorexia may also include compensatory behaviors as well, so it is likely one who doesn’t understand the psychological differences in the two may confuse them. Therefore, I encourage you to do some reading on your own to better understand the differences. The third primary type is Binge Eating Disorder, which recently became an official diagnosis when the DSM-V was published. Binge eating is simply defined as recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food without compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain like we see in bulimia.
While food and weight are surface level issues for eating disorders, there is so much more to be considered. The development of an eating disorder incorporates a number of factors over a long period of time, such as genetic links, biological roots, personality traits, traumatic experiences, and attachment issues.
Let’s take a brief look at the role of trauma in the life of one suffering from an eating disorder. You may think of a trauma as an emotional injury. It is usually an overwhelmingly painful or distressing experience often leaving a person vulnerable to unhealthy coping skills. I have often heard my friend and colleague, Joshua Nichols, LMFT, defines trauma as “any negative life experience that you know you will never forget.” It is important to note that the level of severity may vary from one traumatic event to another, but trauma is trauma nonetheless. Thus, individuals who have experienced trauma(s) can develop an eating disorder as they are desperate to suppress painful emotions (e.g., shame and self-hatred), regain a sense of control, and cope with the recurrent memories of the trauma itself.
In addition to traumatic responses, one must consider the development of the individual as a child. At the core of healthy development, the bonding experience with the primary caregivers and the safety of the environment is essential. Bonding is existential to all human beings; therefore, when a secure bond has not been formed, an individual will often seek connection with another source; thus, an unhealthy obsession (e.g., food, body image) can occur and ultimately develop into an eating disorder.
Suffering from an eating disorder is a mental health journey that often feels hopeless for those traveling through it. Therefore, I want to reassure you that RECOVERY IS ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE!! As a licensed therapist trained to work with this population, I have witnessed the level of suffering from this disorder manifest before my own two eyes. I feel humbled and privileged to help these courageous individuals and families heal from past traumas, disrupt unhealthy dynamics, and create a desirable and healthy way of thinking and functioning. If you know someone suffering from an eating disorder and you can see the toll it is taking on their lives, please speak up. Encourage them to get help and that recovery is as much for them as it is for anybody.
Note: If you are mental health professional or someone actively involved in eating disorder recovery, please consider joining us for this training by eating disorder specialist and licensed therapist, Deanna James, on Friday, December 2, 2016.
Licensed Marital & Family Therapist
Certified Eating Disorder Specialist Candidate