Trauma, Sexual Assault and Eating Disorders

By: 
Caitlin Hamilton, Communications Associate

Thanks to the wonderful work of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the month of April is dedicated as  Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. RAINN says that, “the goal of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (#SAAM) is to spread awareness of sexual violence, and share concrete ways to address this issue.” This is a goal that NEDA whole-heartedly supports.

Did you know that sexual assault is prevalent? According to RAINN, every two minutes, another American is sexually assaulted. "The statistics are sobering, but the good news is that everyone can play a role in fighting sexual violence," says Scott Berkowitz, RAINN's founder and president. "One simple way is to share RAINN's hotline (online.rainn.org) with a loved one. That support can make such a difference." 

Did you also know that sexual assault and trauma are sometimes closely linked to eating disorders?

“Traumatic experiences, especially those involving interpersonal violence[such as sexual assault], have been found to be a significant risk factor for the development of a variety of psychiatric disorders, including eating disorders, particularly those characterized by bulimic symptoms, such as binge eating and purging,” says Dr. Timothy Breweton, an expert in the field of trauma and eating disorders.

Dr. Brewerton points out that among those who have experienced trauma, binge eating and purging can develop as a kind of coping mechanism. “In much the same way as substances of abuse are used to self-medicate, binge eating and purging appear to be behaviors that facilitate 1) decreasing the anxiety associated with trauma, as well as 2) the numbing, avoidance and even forgetting of traumatic experiences.”

Though eating disorders have complex roots and triggers, we often hear that sexual assault acts as a catalyst for developing an eating disorder. In a recent issue of Making Connections, super model and NEDA Ambassador, Carré Otis, said the same about her own experiences.

“…I began to realize that two triggers for disordered eating were sex and sexuality. I began to see how trauma in my past – profound violations of my body including molestation and rape – had led me to feel dissociated from my body, as if it was no longer my own.”

Importantly, as RAINN points out, it is never too late for someone to get help. Otis says it took her over 20 years to make the connection between her eating disorder and her history of sexual trauma. But once she made the connection, she was able to begin her process of healing.

“I had to find compassion for the young girl who believed that controlling her body would make her safer in the world, who believed that the sexual assaults may have somehow been her fault, who believed that her sexuality was something she had to use rather than celebrate. As I began to internalize this compassion, I began to honor my body in a profound new way, and it was then that true recovery was possible.”

If you or someone you care about has been the victim of sexual assault, please act now to ensure that you get the help you need and deserve. Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or check out this article on how to help a friend.

All quotes in this piece are from the June 2013 issue of Making Connections.

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