Traumatic Events Can Trigger Eating Disorders

A May issue of the Journal of Clinical Nursing published an article which pointed to insufficient family support during times of stress as a causal effect in the development of eating disorders. The University of Minnesota study was based on interviews with 26 females and one male (ages 17-64 years) currently receiving treatment for eating disorders which had typically lasted around 20 years. The median patient age was 27 years. Nine subjects had anorexia and three subjects struggled with bulimia, and one patient was diagnosed with both. The remaining 14 subjects lived with disordered eating but were not clinically diagnosed with a specific disorder.

In the course of interviewing the subjects, researchers identified six thematic events which stood out as triggers for development of an eating disorder.

  1. School Changes
    Leaving grammar school for middle school or junior high school meant dealing with new independences. For some patients being faced with independence apart from a strong family undergirding and family guidance proved very difficult to navigate. Other subjects mentioned that going off to university where they felt suddenly lost and responsible for their own self-affirmation became a trigger. In each case, the lack of regular love and support was mentioned.
  2. Relational Changes
    In some instances it was the loss of their own partner which led to an eating disorder, but in other cases it was the impact of parental divorce which proved pivotal. More than one female said her disordered eating started when her father began to ignore her in favor of a new girlfriend.
  3. Death
    Death is always traumatic for everyone. However, for young people the loss of a dear friend or family member brings a grief that they do not understand how to process. With sufficient support and caring from the family during such events, young people looked for some way to regain control through eating.
  4. Home/Work Changes
    When families moved into a new area either due to job changes or simply to change homes, kids and young adults who felt alone, afraid and unsupported during the transition turned to disordered eating as a way to cope. Some mentioned the stress of being unable to connect with new co-workers and others talked about the loss of longtime friends and the need to re-establish new relationships, but it was the sense of aloneness in the challenge that proved too much for them.
  5. Health Changes
    Several subjects reported that weight loss due to illness or hospitalization elicited positive comments which led into their eating disorder. Others said that their unhealthy eating was directly related to a health problem over which they had no control. Lack of healthy outside perspective during these periods allowed them to become habituated in disordered eating.
  6. Abuse
    Sexual abuse from family members led some to use food as an escape – either to make themselves unattractive to their abuser or to numb the pain of silent suffering.

As this interview-based study shows, traumatic events of many kinds can lead a young person to choose a life of disordered eating. Though the trauma may differ, each subject referred to a common theme of feeling alone and unsupported during such times. The lack of sufficient support appears to be the real trigger behind eating disorders according to the nursing journal study.

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