Trauma and Eating Disorder Recovery

Written by staff at Timberline Knolls, an ANAD Silver Partner 

Both trauma and eating disorders are extremely prevalent in today’s world. It is not difficult to understand how they co-occur. After years of parental neglect, a teenager routinely consumes enormous amounts of food, first as a distraction, then as a way to numb out. A college student experiences sexual violence; in turn, she restricts food to cope with painful emotions associated with the trauma.

It is essential to understand the relationship between trauma and eating disorders in order to fully recognize how it impacts recovery.

Trauma affects the brain in myriad ways–perhaps one of the most critical aspects is the impact on the emotional center. Although the human brain is a magnificent and highly complex organ, it does not differentiate the experience of emotion into “good” or “bad.” All feelings—delight, sorrow, elation, regret — are housed together in one specific area.  In close proximity to this emotional warehouse is the alarm center, which alerts us to danger. These two centers work together. Emotions provide information that alerts us to peril and establishes meaning, and the alarm center is designed to react at lightning speed for our survival.

However, if an individual has experienced a trauma, especially a chronic trauma such as abuse, the alarm goes off relentlessly; the commensurate message from the brain is to run and escape, which may be unwise or only intensify the danger. In time, the brain learns to turn off the alarm center altogether as a form of protection.

This survival strategy uses the trauma to promote resilience and it is the reason why humans are able to withstand very traumatic experiences.  However, there is a price to be paid. The part of the brain that holds the alarm bell and has now been subdued, also holds what we consider to be positive emotions such as excitement and joy.  Metaphorically, it is as if all the lights have been turned off.

Therefore, as someone embarks on recovery, there is often an emotional disconnect as if they are just “going through the motions.” This subdued emotional center often makes it difficult to feel comfort or contentment without walking out behaviors. In fact, many discover that when they do participate in a pleasurable activity and actually experience positive feelings, the alarm bell inappropriately re-engages. Remember, the brain cannot distinguish between the various types of emotions.

This is precisely why an important component of recovery must be building meaning into life in tandem with a capacity for joy.  An individual can begin with small pleasures, simply allowing themselves to notice positive experiences. A bird song at daybreak, the fragrance after rainfall, a dog wagging its tail.  Mindfulness skills can provide significant help in approaching this process because they allow us to observe these feelings in a gentle, non-judgmental way.

Dr. Bessel Vanderkolk, a founder in trauma recovery efforts, says “when we know WHAT we feel, we know WHY we feel,” and then we can better engage with those feelings.

Exploring creativity is another key element of building capacity for joy.  Whether it be yoga, interior design, painting, or photography, immersion in a creative pursuit fully engages the senses. Additionally it connects with the emotional centers of our brain in a gentle present-moment fashion and is not as closely linked to the pain of the past.

Not only does the human brain protect itself from trauma and remain resilient, it also has the capacity to thrive in recovery. By practicing mindfulness and building the capacity for joy, those in recovery can go on to live a life full of meaning, balance and abundance.