The Connection between Abuse, Trauma, and Eating Disorders

Individuals who have suffered trauma and subsequently, post-traumatic stress disorder, struggle with many different symptoms. Victims are often impaired socially and struggle with nightmares, excessive anger, and flashbacks.

A recent article by Timothy D. Brewerton, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, examined the prevalence of eating disorders among those suffering PTSD. In The Links Between PTSD and Eating Disorders, Brewerton examines the associations between trauma and eating disorders to better understand the extent of those affected.

Brewerton developed a case for a link between PTSD and eating disorders using data from the National Women’s Study. The National Women’s Study is the only detailed data available, providing information about crime victimization histories, including resulting PTSD diagnoses. The information also provides data about psychiatric comorbidity that affects PTSD sufferers, such as eating disorders.

While examining the data from the National Women’s Study, Brewerton found that current and lifetime PTSD was more likely to be found in those with bulimia nervosa than those without bulimia nervosa. Individuals who had been diagnosed with binge eating disorder using DSM-IV criteria were also much more likely to suffer from PTSD.

According to the National Women’s Study, the prevalence of bulimia nervosa was significantly greater among individuals with a history of rape with PTSD, versus those with a history of rape, but no PTSD.

The findings of the study make a strong case for bulimia nervosa being positively related to abuse resulting in PTSD, versus being related to the abuse itself. The chances of developing bulimia nervosa go up significantly if the individual is diagnosed with PTSD. Lifetime PTSD also increased the risk of major depression and alcohol abuse or dependence with bulimia nervosa. Interestingly, none of the study participants with anorexia nervosa showed a history of PTSD.

Clinical studies also show that there is a higher rate of PTSD shown in individuals with eating disorders. In one study, 74 percent of the women enrolled in residential treatments reported having experienced a significant trauma. 52 percent of those women reported symptoms that were indicative of current PTSD.

The information gathered by Brewerton shows a pattern of connection between eating disorders and PTSD. It is possible that the association is linked by the disordered behavior that results from the abuse. It may be advisable to consider making a screen for PTSD part of the normal treatment for eating disorders so that the root of the disordered behaviors might be identified and treated.

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