Connection Between PTSD and Eating Disorder

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By Dr. Priyanka SrivastavaPsychologist

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent exaggerated fear responses after a traumatic or shocking experience such as sexual abuse, accidents, military experience etc.

Eating disorders are a number of mental conditions which are characterized by abnormal eating habits which affect an individual’s physical and mental health.

PTSD and eating disorders often develop together. Psychiatrists have not been able to establish a concrete relationship between the two conditions. However, there are several explanations as to why they occur together:

1. The most common eating disorder that accompanies PTSD is Bulimia nervosa where the patient binge eats frequently and then tries to expel the food by self-induced vomiting, over-exercise, fasting etc. Usually, patients develop the eating disorder after the trauma. Many psychiatrists believe that the patients overeat in order to reduce the feelings of pain and depression. The disturbing thoughts related to the traumatic experience are replaced by constant thoughts of eating and purgative techniques.

2. Victims of sexual assault develop bulimic tendencies more than women who have not experienced sexual violence. It is believed that they try to gain weight by overeating so that they are not sexually abused again. This is especially common in women.

3. Anorexia nervosa is a disorder where the patient refuses to eat and is excessively worried about maintaining low body weight. Patients of PTSD often have suicidal tendencies and extreme feelings of guilt and shame for surviving the traumatic event when others did not. They often develop anorexia in an attempt to “punish” themselves.

4. Eating disorders such as “diabulimia”(manipulating insulin levels to regulate weight) are often developed because the patient tries to exercise control over an aspect of his/her life in order to make up for his/her feelings of vulnerability and helplessness during the traumatic experience.

5. Starvation accompanied with alcohol abuse (colloquially called drunkorexia) and then self-purging of the alcohol to drink again is common in patients of PTSD.