Find peace with food and overcome disordered eating.
Eating Disorder Therapist
Overcome disordered eating and find peace with food
Moving Beyond Trauma in Eating Disorder Recovery
by Emma on August 17th, 2020

By Emma 
We hear a lot about how controlling weight and eating can be motivated by the desire to appease a general sense of not being good enough, to meet an ideal standard or to find a way of feeling in control. There is still a stereotypical image of the person with anorexia as white, middle class, intelligent and female. What we still don’t talk about much in any meaningful way, is the link between eating disorders and trauma.

At around the time I developed anorexia I was living in an environment of unpredictable threat, frequently finding myself in a hypervigilant, anxious state. I had no frame of reference from which to make sense of my experiences, didn’t trust my own perceptions and had no one who was able to consistently reflect my feelings back to me. Despite this, I had some protective relationships, my sister and I were able to validate one another, I did well at school and was able to use this to find a way through.

When we do not feel safe, it is quite natural to find ways of creating a sense of safety. Often these ways of coping can be creative, necessary and useful at the time they develop. This is important, as we often see eating disordered behaviours as only undesirable, not understanding the function they may serve for someone. Personally, the strategies I developed worked quite well in the original environment I found myself in. They included striving as hard as possible to get things ‘right’, trying not to bother anyone (‘I don’t need anything’) and exerting as much control over my body as possible in the form of weight loss. These strategies allowed me to feel a sense of mastery in at least one area.

Within a CFT model this can be seen as the ‘drive’ and achieving system being overdeveloped and being used as a way to try to regulate the ‘threat’ system. I definitely found the ‘easy win’ of restriction self reinforcing, but I also think it became a way of desperately communicating that I was ‘not ok’ without having to actually say words. It wasn’t very effective, but it was all I had at the time. I don’t think people develop eating disorders deliberately and I definitely think that once that mindset has a grip it can feel extremely difficult to untangle yourself without help. I didn’t have help and so I became quite stuck, and my eating disorder became the ‘problem’ that was visible. In some ways anorexia began to silence me, just as  the situation I found myself in did.

Thanks to a number of protective relationships, I also functioned highly in a range of ways (I worked, developed friendships and romantic relationships). This was obviously helpful but it also meant that when I did become aware of the existence of eating disorder services I didn’t realise that help was available for people like me, who ‘functioned’ but underneath really struggled, and therefore my anorexia kept a grip to varying degrees for quite a long time.

One of the themes that drove my eating disorder was being quite cut off from the awareness of my own needs. At a relatively young age I had needed to become quite self sufficient, and cope alone. Consequently I felt guilty for desiring normal amounts of attention, frequently felt ‘too much’, and felt bad for wanting help or enjoying the feeling of someone being kind. Underneath my emotional experience had become quite constricted and I probably seemed quite shut down to people who knew me. It is difficult to acknowledge that (even with the best of intentions) you have been left to face unmanageable things and so it can be easier to decide that you don’t need anything at all. If we have experienced trauma that involves bodily violation (whether through violence or other forms of abuse) we can also develop intense discomfort in our body, and restricting or other eating disordered behaviours can be a way of managing this.

In hindsight my commitment to weight loss felt like a furious rejection of a whole range of needs and a desperate attempt to be ok on my own. Of course this doesn’t work very well because we exist in relationship to others and the need to feel seen and connected to people who care about us and are able to tolerate all the different parts of us is one of the most fundamental aspects of being a human.

What I now see is that anorexia creates a very fragile veneer of order, control, predictability. It keeps a person in a state of being tightly constricted. If this continues for long enough you probably don’t even realise you are in this state. It becomes normal. The problem with this strategy over the long term is that it can leave us very disconnected and cut off from both our emotions and our body, and so increasingly unaware of what we actually need. And so restriction, denial and a sense of not being allowed a whole range of normal things can become a relentless, self perpetuating cycle. It stops us from seeing in colour and it prevents us from processing. Recovery can involve getting back in touch with feelings we shut down early on in the development of our eating disorder and this can be difficult as it can feel like our worst fears about weight restoration are really happening.

Recovery for me has involved working not only on the behavioural aspects of regulating eating, interrupting compulsive exercise habits, restoring weight, it has also involved working on the emotional and relational aspects of my experiences. This can take time (years ago I struggled to verbally name feelings even though I was able to identify them). It has also involved a process of ‘opening up’ within my personal relationships as well as within therapy. Some relationships have been hugely significant in my recovery not only from anorexia but also from all the other difficult stuff that became reactivated through the process of restoring weight. There is something very powerful about receiving kindness, being listened to, validated, given time and space and understanding. I think it is important to say that opening up to the right people at the right time is also important, and sometimes this is tricky to gauge, especially at first. You do not owe everyone your story.

If anorexia involves keeping things very structured and controlled, it can be the case that we want to recover in a neat, tidy, linear way, too, but I have never seen a true recovery that looks like that. Recovery, at least for me, required beginning to engage with things that felt very messy, and finding ways to begin to navigate what I discovered as skillfully as possible. I used to say that I felt ‘reckless’ with food when I allowed myself something different or less ‘safe’. But when you are very stuck in a restricted place, being ‘a bit reckless’ can simply meant moving closer towards the middle, towards an appropriate amount of ‘allowing’ and ‘indulgence’. I think we can apply this to emotions too. To get unstuck sometimes we need to do things that feel utterly unfamiliar or reckless, or approach experiences that feel quite terrifying. We do not have to do to ourselves what was done to us. If you have been very squashed down or dismissed, moving towards a place of allowing yourself things or using your voice can feel like a big risk. It can also feel unnerving to suddenly become aware of feeling ‘needy’ or wanting closeness to others if this is not your usual state. This is another reason that it is difficult to navigate recovery alone.

We need the right people around us, who can help us to weigh up what ‘recklessness’ really looks like and who can tolerate the process alongside us. So reconnecting to the parts of ourselves we have lost touch with or become disconnected from can be challenging. I have found compassionate mind training helpful in beginning to reconnect with my ‘compassionate self’ and use this part of me to encourage myself to gently approach difficult feelings rather than avoid them.

So recovery isn’t always about fixing what is wrong with us. Sometimes it is also about exploring what happened to us. It can involve beginning to allow yourself to use the voice you already have but have become quite disconnected from. This may not always be comfortable. Social structures can silence us as well as internal beliefs and fears. It requires genuine courage to get in touch with the parts of ourselves that have been silent for too long. So developing trust with someone, ideally a number of people is important. Sitting with painful things with someone who can tolerate all the different aspects of you is important. Words and naming things can feel important.

We can use art, writing, or political action or whatever works. Responding to our needs can also involve setting our own boundaries, both internally and externally. Developing a sense of social responsibility and connection can feel important. Trauma can of course be collective as well as individual and understanding how our individual experiences fit within a wider social narrative can be a turning point. So the work of recovery is not only about food and weight, it is also often about imperfectly, messily finding a way towards a warmer, kinder, more nurturing relationship with ourselves and others.


Posted in Anxiety, Eating disorder, Self-compassion, trauma, Compassion Focused Therapy    Tagged with trauma, Eating Disorder, anorexia recovery, compassion focused therapy


3 Comments

Emma Pettit - August 17th, 2020 at 1:26 PM
I can really relate. Thank you so much for this %u2764%u2764%u2764
Harriet Frew - August 18th, 2020 at 1:29 AM
Thank you for comment. It's a really helpful post by Emma.
Jasmine Foulkes - August 19th, 2020 at 6:52 AM
wonderful, insightful and courageous article :)
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