February is National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) Month.
By Brooke Elbert, Communications Coordinator
What many may not know is that eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental illnesses, causing around 10,200 deaths each year according to research. While there are many factors that play into the development of an eating disorder, research shows a significant intersection between past trauma and disordered eating. Such trauma includes sexual assault; according to some sources, this affects 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men in Colorado alone. So, how is it that a survivor of sexual violence may develop Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder (BED), or others? I had the opportunity to sit down with Ana Martinez, a Therapist here at The Blue Bench. Ana offered tremendous insight regarding what trauma can do to one’s sense of autonomy, self-esteem, and coping mechanisms, how these experiences can lead to eating disorders and words of advice on how we can come together to support one another as a community.
“We aim to control every aspect of our lives,” says Ana. When an individual faces something as adverse as sexual assault, they may develop certain behaviors to regain the bodily autonomy that they feel they lost; one behavior may be controlling the consumption of food intake. This may begin intentionally, such as actively seeking forms of dieting. However, this often becomes an unconscious behavior to control physical appearance and eating in an attempt to regain autonomy. Ana suggests that the physical and mental harm caused by sexual trauma leads many survivors to believe that their boundaries aren’t worth protecting. A survivor may feel a sense of shame, disgust, or discomfort even though the situation is not their fault. As a result, their self-esteem takes a toll, causing them to disconnect from their bodily needs. An eating disorder likely develops from this situation, often involuntarily. While everyone reacts to trauma differently, Ana explains that a healthy childhood with little to no trauma will increase the likelihood of a strong foundation of coping skills. Conversely, those who have faced a traumatic childhood may lack such a foundation and therefore find their path in healing from surviving trauma more difficult. As a result, an individual may be more likely to turn to other forms of coping, such as developing an eating disorder. Ana highlights that an eating disorder can present a form of control that a survivor of trauma may be desperately in search of.
A global pandemic, politics, violence, and everything in-between: there’s no doubt that we’re all living in the midst of a very traumatic time. Because self-isolation is encouraged to lower COVID-19 numbers, socialization isn’t what it used to be. According to Ana, this makes it easier for survivors of trauma and eating disorders to hide their struggles. Additionally, there’s an outstanding limitation of access to treatment programs. While virtual options may still be available, a virtual call can be “a very hard shift to make from in-person sessions,” says Ana. Not to mention, today’s bleak events and their portrayal in the media can be triggering for survivors of past trauma.
“Humans were not meant to fight alone,” expresses Ana. As we observe NEDA Month 2021, we may feel a sense of helplessness. After all, we’re limited in how we’re able to help one another at the moment. However, there are always ways to be a part of the solution. One way we can support survivors of eating disorders and sexual assault is to start by believing. Many survivors are not believed after experiencing sexual assault. Similarly, many who face eating disorders are accused of seeking attention. By changing the way which we interact with one another about these issues, we have the ability to make a tremendous impact. If we start by believing, we can build a culture that listens to people’s bodies, their needs, and their overall autonomy. Even despite our limited social opportunities, checking in on one another is imperative. “Humans are incredibly resilient and have the capacity to heal and improve,” says Ana. “The earlier we can intervene and support each other and ourselves, the better we will be able to manage these things moving forward.” This might look like more frequent check-ins with our kids, roommates, or other family members. Even if we aren’t in the same household as our loved ones, a simple phone call with interest in their well-being can mean all the difference. If you or a loved one are experiencing an eating disorder, consider reaching out to the resources listed below. Even through such difficult times, we have the power to eliminate the stigma against sexual assault and eating disorders. It’s time to change the conversation and start by believing.
The Emily Program offers both in-person and tele-health treatment options.
The Eating Recovery Center offers a clinician hotline, as well as several educational resources and treatment options.
The National Eating Disorder Hotline has options to call, text, or chat online with professionals. The National Eating Disorder Association provides support, resources, and medical options.
If you or a loved one are a survivor of sexual assault, please consider reaching out to The Blue Bench’s 24-hour hotline.