An exploration of the relationship between eating disorders and traumatic experiences

Cindy Bridger (1997)

Despite an abundance of clinical anecdotal information connecting the experience of physical and sexual abuse with trauma, the empirical evidence has been equivocal. I begin this dissertation with a literature review summarizing the dominant schools of thought on the etiology of eating disorders. Then I present some of the empirical studies which have shown a correlation between eating disorders and trauma and some which have not. I conclude the literature review with a discussion of the major themes found in the literature to explain the co-occurence of eating problems and trauma. For this study, I did in-depth interviews with 16 women who have had an eating disorder and a history of trauma using a qualitative research method. The major themes which emerged from the interviews are: the management of negative affect through the eating problems, the eating disorder as a means of regaining control, as a way of avoiding adult sexuality, and as an expression of overt or internalized anger. Negative body image issues were also prominent in the women's stories. The participants also talked about their positive and negative experiences with psychotherapy. The data strongly suggests that a psychotherapeutic treatment focused on the issues and feelings connected with the traumatic experiences is a more useful approach for these women than a symptom-focused treatment model.