It is estimated that between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK suffer with an eating disorders like Anorexia nervosa 8%, Bulimia nervosa 19%, and Binge eating disorder 22%. Is it your childhood trauma causing your binge eating?
There are many reasons that can cause you to develop binge eating disorder. One of those could be childhood trauma. Children who have experienced emotional, physical, psychological, and or sexual abuse are more likely to develop psychological issues and body image issues.
Understanding childhood trauma
Childhood trauma is something that can have a lasting impact on an individual’s life, and can affect mental, physical, and emotional health, as well as relationships and overall well-being. Recent studies have shown that the effects of childhood trauma can even extend into adulthood.
Abuse lowers the child’s self-esteem. They may struggle with confidence, and forming trusting relationships. That abuse is internalised whereby they believe what is happening is their fault.
Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Examples of trauma are emotional, physical and sexual trauma. Some people clearly display criteria associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Some of the responses to trauma can include; numbness, dissociation, confusion, sadness, and anxiety. The symptoms are known as traumatic stress.
Delayed responses to trauma can include fatigue, helplessness, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety focused on flashbacks, depression, and avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma, even remotely. For example, sounds or people’s actions can be very triggering.
Some trauma survivors have difficulty in self-regulation with their emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame. This is more so when the trauma occurred at a young age. Especially so when the young person has no one to talk to and no one to help them through the trauma. If the trauma is repeated it further impacts the ability to talk or express emotions
Responses to trauma are:
Numbing, is where we detach our emotions from our thoughts, behaviors, and memories. We may self-harm as a way of numbing out.
Cognitive errors: Where we misinterpret a current situation as dangerous because it resembles a previous trauma.
Feelings of guilt: Where we attempt to make sense cognitively and gain control over a traumatic experience by assuming responsibility or possessing survivor’s guilt because others who experienced the same trauma did not survive.
Idealisation: We make inaccurate rationalisations or justifiy of the perpetrator’s behavior, particularly if the perpetrator is or was a caregiver and someone we loved or was to be respected.
Trauma-induced hallucinations or delusions: Experiencing hallucinations and delusions that, although they are biological in origin, contain cognitions that are congruent with trauma content (e.g., a woman believes that a person stepping onto her bus is her father, who had sexually abused her repeatedly as child, because he wore shoes similar to those her father once wore).
Intrusive thoughts and memories: When we experience thoughts and memories associated with the trauma. It can be as if the trauma is happening to us right now and can be triggering. We can’t separate what is happening now and what happened when we experienced the trauma.
Understanding trauma and binge eating
Binge eating disorder and trauma go hand in hand as people who have experienced trauma are likely to develop an eating issue as a way of coping with emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Someone may develop several different unhealthy coping mechanisms that keep them from experiencing their trauma. This happens unconsciously. No one makes a choice to start binge eating.
Some of the responses to trauma as mentioned above are avoidance and difficulty in regulating their emotions. Hence overeating is a way of avoiding such emotions, as when we turn to food, it feels good and we are satisfying an emotion. It means we do not have to face our emotions.
How we respond depends on our early life experiences and the past trauma we may have experienced. As a response to stress we self-soothe with food. Over time this turns into maladaptive behaviours around food. Hence the link between our childhood trauma causing our binge eating.
Patients with binge eating disorder often has co-morbid mental health disorders. This could be depression, anxiety, or another psychotic disorder. To remove themselves even further from the trauma, it is not uncommon for people with eating disorders also to have a substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder.
People may engage in self-destructive behaviours such as drugs, and aggressive behaviours that are all trauma-related. It contributes to you experiencing emotional dysregulation.
PTSD and binge eating
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder usually begin within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but they sometimes emerge later. To meet the criteria for PTSD, symptoms must last longer than 1 month, and they must be severe enough to interfere with aspects of daily life, such as relationships or work. The symptoms also must be unrelated to medication, substance use, or other illness.
Common physical disorders and symptoms of PTSD include sleep disturbances; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders; urological problems; and substance use disorders.
Many people with binge eating disorder reportedly feel they are filling a void when they binge eat. We know that food cannot fill an emotional void, yet it feels good for a short period whilst doing it. Thus you are not having to remember or confront your trauma in that moment. It is the same when stress eating, it is suppressing those stressful emotions.
People who purge, report a feeling of letting go and getting rid of emotions.
Eating also feels good and makes us feel good. Strong tastes, textures and smells can transport us to a good place and again we do not have to remember unwanted memories whilst eating.
It is interesting that post-traumatic symptoms include overwhelming guilt and excessive shame. Many people report feeling guilt and shame after they have had a binge eating episode.
PTSD and eating disorder may share some similar characteristics. They both have high rates of dissociation. Episodes of eating may be a way to distance yourself from disturbing thoughts, emotions, or memories associated with PTSD (Mitchell et al. 2012).
The Binge Eating and Restriction cycle
In the middle of a traumatic event, no one is in control. Many people report feeling a loss of control when they binge and they end up eating large quantities of food, going past the point of fullness. To gain a sense of that control, and to balance out the binge effects, they put themselves on a restrictive diet. The trouble is, it is the restriction that causes the bingeing. They get caught up in this vicious cycle and can leave people with a feeling of hopelessness.
This cycle gets people caught in the trap of undereating and then compulsive eating. This can make it difficult to engage in regular eating behavior patterns.
Way to heal your Childhood trauma and Binge Eating
Only by addressing the trauma in a healthy way can someone who does emotional eating make a positive recovery. If left untreated it could get worse over time.
Treatment surprisingly is often not about the food. In fact BED is not really about the food, it is about the feeling that bingeing gives you or stops you from healing.
EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing). It helps you process and recover from past difficult experiences. The therapist moves their fingers in front of your eyes from side to side and you follow them with your eyes. It is said that the process, helps you to access different parts of your brain and helps you to process your unresolved trauma.
CBT (Cognitive behavioural Therapy) is another form of psychotherapy where with the therapist, you look at your thoughts and behaviours around binge eating. We change negative thoughts to more positive ones and change irrational thoughts to more rational ones. It looks at your overall behavioral health. The process can help you to build a positive relationship with food and finally gain a sense of peace with food.
Psychotherapy involves talking therapy. A trauma-informed therapist will help you with the symptoms of the trauma above and helps you to separate the resulting behaviour from the trauma. You are better able to regulate your emotions. You get to the cause of your eating so you can improve it.
The therapist will help you to overcome your negative feelings and develop self-compassion.
Intuitive eating. This is where you practise mindfulness with your eating. You are paying attention to your language, feelings, and behaviours around food. By developing a curious nature with yourself, you are working on letting go of the guilt and shame that comes with binge eating.
Nutritional therapy. This is where a dietician or nutritionist looks at the food you are eating and helps you to form a regular and healthy eating pattern. They may suggest foods and times of eating. It can help you to get back into a positive eating pattern.
Doctor. Your medical doctor is a good place to start and can refer you to appropriate medical professionals who can help you psychologically and medically. They will refer to the DSM 5, which is the diagnostic and statistical manual for mental health disorders to help diagnose you. They can provide a trauma-informed care team for you.