Trauma: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience
I’ve heard so many stories of trauma from clients over the years. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Emotional abuse. Neglect. Manipulation. Witnessing others abused, tortured, and killed. Each person responds differently using the fight, flight or freeze reaction. Each one of these reactions can lead to a form of an eating disorder when the person can’t trust themselves or others to help them through it.
Fighters can often become overcompensators. They will do anything to be perceived as strong, powerful, worthy, and perfect. Orthorexia, muscle dysmorphia, compulsive exercising, restricting, and purging can all come from this deep desire to fight off offenders and win over lovers or superiors. It becomes insidious. The result is we fight and suppress our own true needs so we may be perceived the way we wish – strong, competent, and a leader. How far from the truth we really are.
Those who flee from their trauma look to numb out, diffuse their pain, and escape from their fears of being victimized. Often they waste away with restriction, trying to so desperately to avoid being a target ever again. Others may binge to the point of morbid obesity to lose all experience of sexual attention or to appear invulnerable and larger than life so others won’t mess with them. Still others may feel overwhelmed by their physical and emotional experience, binge to self-soothe and purge to eradicate the tidal wave of shame and guilt they feel. The purge is not just undoing the food and calories; it’s to eliminate the fear.
Those who are frozen become the most tormented, unable to do anything to care for themselves, and instead perform the whims of others, dependent on everyone else for direction and purpose. They may become like paper dolls, still images of what others dictate as beautiful and worthy of love and affection. Their ability to speak for themselves is stripped from them. As a result, the only way to express their feelings is through manipulating their bodies, showing the world the hurt they have inside through the behaviors of starvation, bingeing and purging, and countless hours in a gym to attain the “right” body.
It doesn’t have to be a major event, like 9-11, or prolonged physical, sexual or emotional abuse to trigger these reactions. We talk in therapy about “little – t” traumas as well as “big – T” traumas, and that the reaction people have to them is natural and hard wired into our personalities. What we do with these reactions is what matters most. We can choose to recognize them, assess if they are helping or harming us, and do something different if need be.
Trauma and eating disorders are often intertwined. We can’t treat one without the other. That’s the reality of it. Recovery doesn’t mean you don’t have thoughts and reactions that are uncomfortable at times. It means you know what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and you respond in a healthy way by learning to trust again.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, CEO at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.