The Trauma Link: Eating Disorders as Metaphors
by Bracha Halberstadt, MSW
It's rarely about the food. Or the weight.
Instead, eating disorders (EDs) are metaphors for what is going on inside the sufferer’s mind and body. Different ED behaviors may serve different functions, with the underlying function often being a way to cope with pain.
Restriction is saying, “No! I won’t allow the pain to enter. I will be the gatekeeper of my body.”
Binge eating is saying, “I will drown my body in food, so I don’t have to feel what is underneath.”
Purging is saying, “I will rid my body of its impurity,” “I will expel the pain outward.”
This metaphorical nature of eating disorders is often what links eating disorders and trauma.
Childhood trauma may be caused by abuse (including physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse), bullying, negative school experiences, a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse, parental divorce, or death of a family member. Childhood trauma is not always about has happened; oftentimes, it’s about what hasn't happened- namely, a secure, loving, and validating environment where emotional needs were met. (In her book “Running on Empty,” author Jonice E. Webb writes of significant consequences of the invisible trauma of emotional neglect).
Trauma can make us feel chronic shame, emptiness, and feelings of not being “good enough.” Trauma also can make us feel powerless, and like we have no control, and no safety. Eating disorders step into this space, seemingly as the “solution,” offering promises of safety and of feeling special, and providing a false sense of control. (Of course, it never works out that way…)
But more important than understanding the research about the general function of an ED is understanding what it does for YOU. Lisa Ferentz, LCSW and author of the groundbreaking “Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors,” talks about how trauma survivors often use their body as a canvas, acting out all the pain that is often too difficult to articulate verbally. The healing work, says Ferentz, is when we tap into the secret messages of the behaviors, when we deeply understand what is beneath it all, and when we begin showing compassion to ourselves.
When dealing with urges for disordered behavior, ask yourself, “If the urge/ behavior/ body part etc. could talk, what would it say?” Use journaling, artwork, poetry, and non-dominant writing to explore the answer. Try to stay curious and realize that you have those answers inside. And be gentle with yourself.
Exploring and healing from trauma is complex work, and it’s best done in therapy with an experienced therapist. There are many different therapy modalities that can help access and heal the pain beneath your eating disorder, such as Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, Psychodrama, and art- expression. (No matter the modality, it's important that your therapist has an understanding of and experience working with eating disorders).
Stabilizing ED behaviors is often the first step in treatment because if you’re not physically nourished, your brain can’t function well enough to do the inner work. But it’s so important that working through the behaviors is not the only focus in recovery. After all, your eating disorder was likely the solution to another, bigger, source of pain. And you deserve to heal.