In 2014, the National Institutes of Health published results of a study that found eating disorders were present in 24.3 percent of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) The study concluded that people who develop an eating disorder after (perhaps) multiple traumatic events are likely to suffer PTSD symptoms.

Data That’s Hard to Argue

The results of a December 1996 study by the University of Oregon supported the theory that traumatic experiences are more prevalent among patients with eating disorders.

According to this study, traumatic experiences are more frequently reported by patients suffering binge eating and/or purging-type disorders (66 percent) and bulimia patients (59 percent) than by patients with anorexia nervosa (21 percent). Traumatic experiences were also observed in obese patients suffering binge eating disorders (47 percent).

It was strongly suggested that clinical interventions following traumatic experiences and PTSD in eating disorder patients have the potential to greatly improve treatment outcomes.

Types of Traumatic Experiences

Most people link PTSD to military service. While it is an undeniable consequence many of our brave servicemen and women face, PTSD is not restricted to military service.

Many events can be traumatic: relationship problems, abuse, or physical or sexual assault. Something that seems as innocuous as changing schools or moving to a new location can be a traumatic trigger that leads to an eating disorder. Any event that initiates extreme psychological distress can trigger PTSD symptomatology or exacerbate an already existing PTSD condition.

Major Traumatic Triggers

Studies have identified some key events that frequently precede the development of a trauma-associated eating disorder.

  • Changes in a relationship. This can encompass a split with a partner or the dissolution of a family when parents split up and move on.
  • The death of someone close. This can relate to a family member or close friend. This loss is an enduring trauma for many, especially when the loss occurs at an early age. Most reported a lack of support and not knowing how to deal with their grief.
  • Home, job or school transition. Families relocating, the loss of a job, switching to a new school or even entering college can all be triggers for PTSD. Most reported feeling lonely and unsupported during these times.
  • Abuse/incest/sexual assault. Abusive events from childhood linger to continue doing damage as time passes. Many of these victims reported feeling deserted by or let down by the family and friends they desperately needed to support them.

Any changes in life can trigger an eating disorder. The need for greater awareness and support at times of stress and change is clear.