Therapy Thursday: Connecting sexual abuse and eating disorder

In Sexual Assault Awareness on June 23, 2011 at 12:01 am

Studies contradict one another when analyzing the correlation between surviving childhood sexual abuse and likelihood of developing an eating disorder; however, many researchers agree that there is a positive correlation.  So the question can arise of why?  Why would eating disorders, problems that are often contributed to America’s obsession with ‘perfect bodies’ and low self-esteem, be influenced by trauma in childhood? 

The answer to this can be simple and yet so complex.  First off, eating disorders are generally used as maladaptive coping skills, just like addiction or self-mutilation, that then begin to be used when dealing with other areas of stress in life.  So while a person may begin binging and purging to better handle the trauma of sexual abuse they begin to apply that coping skill to pressure they feel during exams, or feelings of being an inadequate parent. 

The complexities begin when analyzing why eating disorders feel effective to trauma survivors.  Purging in particular has shown to be a release of anger.  The adrenaline high from intense exercise might be the only respite from a person’s depression, so they begin working out for hours and hours every day.  The staple elements of sexual abuse, power and control, are also key to understanding the use of eating disorders as a coping skill.  When a person is made to feel as though they lost complete control over their body, it might seem as though they are taking it back by controlling exactly what food they ingest; and it might seem incredibly powerful to be able to survive on minimal food when it seems to be something everyone else requires.  There can also be thoughts in survivors’ minds that the assault was about sexual desire rather than solely power and control: ‘if I compulsively over eat and gain weight I might not be sexually attractive and then I won’t be hurt again.’

One of the first steps in therapy can be understanding and acknowledging that eating disorders are a maladaptive coping skills and their possible connection between  them and one’s history of sexual trauma.  And the rest, though it sounds easy but is one of the hardest parts, is finding healthier coping skills and beginning to work through the trauma.


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