Eating disorders are behavioral conditions that affect individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Although the exact link between sexual abuse and eating disorders is not fully understood, there is some research indicating a connection between the two. Studies have revealed that survivors of sexual abuse are more likely to develop eating disorders than those who have not experienced such trauma.
This blog post will explore the link between sexual abuse and eating disorders, how they are connected, and how to seek help if you or someone you know is suffering from a sexual trauma-related eating disorder. By understanding the potential connection between sexual abuse and eating disorders, we can better support survivors of sexual abuse who may be struggling with disordered eating.
Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Childhood sexual abuse is a devastating experience that can have long-term effects on a person’s mental and physical health. Unfortunately, many survivors do not seek help until years or decades later due to feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion. Some of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse may include:
- Difficulty forming relationships: Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may struggle to form meaningful connections with people due to fear and mistrust.
- Depression: When untreated, many survivors struggle with depression, both as children and later as adults.
- Anxiety: Childhood sexual abuse can lead to an increased risk of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and various forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Low self-esteem: Many survivors of sexual abuse suffer from misplaced feelings of shame and embarrassment, leading to low self-esteem. A large number of child sex abuse survivors are psychologically groomed and later abused by individuals they know, which can heighten feelings of insecurity and lack of trust. This can lead to difficulty connecting with others and difficulty forming healthy relationships.
- Eating Disorders: Childhood sexual abuse can increase the risk of developing eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
- Substance abuse: Childhood sexual abuse can push survivors towards drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the complex web of emotional pain caused due to sexual trauma in formative years.
- Self-Harm: Some survivors of childhood sexual abuse may engage in self-harming behaviors, such as cutting or burning themselves.
What Are the Signs of an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders can be difficult to spot, but there are some common signs and symptoms including:
- Restrictive eating habits, including limiting the amount of food eaten or avoiding certain types of food altogether
- Rapid or fluctuating weight loss or gain
- An unusual preoccupation with food, body weight, body size and shape
- Obsessive behavior around food, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, blindly following diet trends, obsessively counting calories, or sticking to ‘safe’ foods
- Changes in sleep patterns, energy levels, and mood
- Binging on large amounts of food in a short period of time
- Eating in secret or lying about the quantity of food eaten
- Engaging in extreme diet culture behaviors such as fasting, taking diet pills or other non-prescribed medications (such as for diabetes), or using laxatives
- Restricting and binging eating cycles
- Avoiding social situations where food is involved
- Suffering from psychological issues such as body dysmorphia and low self-esteem
- Feeling isolated or disconnected from friends and family
What Are the Different Types of Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders come in many forms, with varying levels of severity. Some of the most common types of eating disorders are:
- Anorexia Nervosa: This is characterized by extreme restriction of food intake, leading to dangerously low body weight, nutritional deficiencies, and other medical complications.
- Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia nervosa is marked by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives.
- Binge Eating Disorder: Binge eating disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of overeating and the inability to control the intake of large quantities of food.
- Orthorexia Nervosa: A disorder in which an individual becomes overly obsessed with healthy eating and nutrition to the point where it impacts their quality of life.
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): This is a disorder in which an individual avoids certain foods due to the irrational fear of them being dangerous or unhealthy. Those with ARFID often suffer from nutritional deficiencies as a result of the disorder.
- Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): A disorder in which an individual has symptoms of some eating disorder that does not fall squarely into any of the categories listed above.
PTSD and Eating Disorders
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event that can have a profound effect on an individual’s thoughts and behavior. Research has found that people who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood are more likely to develop PTSD-induced eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Los Angeles Sex Crimes Attorney
Sexual violence is a deeply invasive act that can leave survivors with a multitude of complex emotions. Sexual abuse survivors often suffer from feelings of helplessness, anger, disgust, shame, or disassociation from their bodies. Some survivors may use controlling behaviors around food as a way to regain a sense of control and suppress difficult emotions. It is important for those with PTSD to seek professional help so that they can learn healthy ways to manage their symptoms and heal from the trauma caused by sexual abuse.
What Causes an Eating Disorder?
There is no single cause for an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex and can have both biological and psychological components. Factors such as genetics, environment, family dynamics, peer pressure, stress, diet culture, and trauma may play a role in the development of an eating disorder.
Adults who have experienced sexual abuse, particularly during their childhood, are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. This is largely due to the trauma experienced, which may lead to low self-esteem, feeling a lack of control over their own lives, difficulty forming healthy relationships, and various other factors.
Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorder Statistics
- Psychology Today reports that many types of trauma, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and physical assault, are associated with eating disorders.
- According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 30 percent of patients dealing with disordered eating have also experienced sexual abuse during their childhood.
- According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, 50 percent of anorexic and bulimic patients have reported a history of sexual abuse.
Eating Disorder Resources
Finding help for eating disorders is an important step toward recovery. There are great resources for finding support and information about eating disorders, and these resources vary from online support groups to treatment centers. Some of the helpful eating disorder resources are:
- The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): NEDA operates a national eating disorder support hotline that can be contacted by phone, text, or online chat.
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): ANAD is a non-profit that provides free, peer support services to those living with an eating disorder.
- Eating Disorders Resource Center (EDRC): EDRC is a non-profit that offers a comprehensive online resource directory and facilitates monthly support groups.
Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders: FAQs
1. Can sexual abuse cause PTSD?
Yes, sexual abuse can cause PTSD. Survivors of sexual abuse may suffer from several symptoms associated with PTSD, including heightened emotions, insomnia, abuse flashbacks, nightmares, and difficulty regulating emotions. Sexual abuse survivors may also struggle with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.
2. Was I sexually abused?
If you think you may have been sexually abused, a mental health professional can provide you with the right guidance and support to help you understand what happened. Some signs that you may have experienced sexual abuse can include fear of certain people, places, or activities; flashbacks; changes in behavior; and difficulty trusting others. These signs don’t necessarily mean that you were sexually abused, but they may be an indication of a traumatic experience.
3. What is the correlation between sexual abuse and eating disorders?
Research indicates that there is a strong link between childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent development of an eating disorder. Sexual abuse can lead to a host of complicated feelings such as anger, disgust, guilt, shame, fear, and depression, all of which can contribute to an individual developing unhealthy coping mechanisms such as disordered eating to regain some sense of control or otherwise cope with the loss of bodily autonomy they endured during acts of sexual violence.
4. Is an eating disorder a mental illness?
Yes, an eating disorder is considered a serious mental illness. Eating disorders are characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits, which can negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health. Eating disorders may lead to significant mental distress; physical health issues; and social, occupational, and other impairments in the functioning of the individual.
5. Can adults develop eating disorders?
Yes, adults can and often do develop eating disorders, although this is less likely than in adolescents. Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, gender, or body size and shape, and can result in physical and psychological consequences. The most common eating disorder in adults is binge-eating disorder.
6. How do I know if I have an eating disorder?
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder is an important step in getting the right help. Signs of an eating disorder can look like: skipping meals, making excuses to avoid meals, intense fear of gaining weight, drastic weight changes, obsession with food or dieting, extreme body image issues or body dysmorphia, refusal to participate in social activities where food is involved, and excessive exercise. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or have concerns that you may have some kind of an eating disorder, it is important to speak to a mental health professional.
7. How do I treat an eating disorder?
Treating an eating disorder may involve a combination of therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and nutrition counseling. Patients may use medications as well in order to reduce anxiety or depression associated with the disorder. It is important to find a mental healthcare provider who is experienced in treating eating disorders and understands your individual needs.
8. How can I help someone with an eating disorder?
Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be difficult, but there are many things you can do to help. The most important thing to remember is to be kind and non-judgmental. Offer compassion and understanding while also providing practical resources and support. Do not make assumptions or criticize their decisions; instead, focus on understanding and creating a safe space for them to talk. Encourage them to seek professional help and treatment, and provide them with access to resources such as therapists, nutritionists, and support groups. Finally, remind them of their self-worth and value, no matter what they may be going through.
9. What effects do eating disorders have on the body?
Eating disorders can have serious physical and mental health effects, such as malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, heart problems, and an increased risk of suicide. Eating disorders can also cause long-term changes in the body, including damage to the digestive system, weakened bones, and hormone imbalances.
10. How can I heal from sexual abuse?
Healing from the trauma of sexual abuse can be a long and challenging journey. It is important to build a strong support system and find ways to empower yourself. This can include therapy, engaging in body-focused trauma work, finding a support group, or seeking out other resources. It is also important to remember that healing can take time, and you may have setbacks along the way.
In addition to the psychological healing that is necessary for recovery, it can be empowering to seek justice by filing a sexual abuse lawsuit. By holding your abuser accountable, you may be able to get closure and regain a sense of justice and control. In these cases, it is important to find an experienced lawyer who understands the nuances of your case and can guide you through the legal process.
No matter what path to healing you take, remember to be gentle with yourself as you go through this process. Healing from sexual abuse is possible, and you are capable of finding strength and resilience as you overcome your pain and trauma.
Reclaim Your Voice: Talk to a Compassionate Sexual Abuse Lawyer
It can be incredibly hard to seek justice for sexual abuse. This is why you should speak to a compassionate sexual abuse lawyer who can help you understand your legal rights and support you as you navigate the often complicated legal system. Most importantly, you want an attorney who will stand by your side and fight for your voice to be heard. Contact a sexual abuse lawyer today to learn more about your options for seeking justice.