Trauma Leading to Dysfunctional Eating Behaviour

People who have suffered childhood trauma, and, as a result, have gone on to develop mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD) have, statistically, worse PHYSICAL health, on average, than those who are mentally well. One reason for this, although there are many) is that both the sufferer and their doctors can be so focused upon treating their emotional difficulties that their physical health tends to take second place and is consequently rather neglected.

One problem that the psychiatric conditions mentioned above can lead to is DYSFUNCTIONAL EATING BEHAVIOUR (or, put rather more simply, over-eating; for example, what is commonly referred to as ‘COMFORT EATING’). As this often leads to obesity, significant physical health problems may develop (e.g. heart disease).

Indeed, in the USA it is estimated that up to 325,000 deaths per year are linked to obesity (Allison et al, 1999).

On top of the serious physical problems, it may cause. obesity can aggravate mental health conditions by setting up a vicious circle. For example, the depressed person eats more and more to soothe his/her inner turmoil and becomes obese as a result – because of the prejudice which exists within society, being obese lowers his/her self-esteem and confidence; this, in turn, leads to greater feelings of depression which leads to even greater unhealthy eating-behavior, and so the self-damaging cycle continues…


Not infrequently, the problem becomes one of being unable to resist the temptation to binge eat. Indeed, it is under consideration that BINGE EATING DISORDER might be officially entered into DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists) as a psychiatric disorder, not least due to the fact that 40% of those who binge eat become obese (Johnson et al, 1996).

Yehuda suggests that some individuals who have experienced severe trauma may well have difficulty focusing upon the present and the future because they are trapped in the past, forever ruminating upon, and reliving past trauma. This may impair such an individual’s ability to plan meals leading to hunger and binge-eating when s/he does finally remember to eat. And, as already alluded to, binge eating can serve s a desperate attempt to quieten internal mental turmoil and anguish. However, whilst such binge-eating may provide short-term gains, constantly numbing one’s painful feelings with food (or drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc.) is a condition known as alexithymia whereby one loses one’s ability to discern one’s own feelings and the reasons as to why one has them. To read more about this, see my article entitled: Childhood Trauma, Alexithymia, Depression, and Binge-eating.

Another theory as to why trauma may lead individuals to binge eat is to intentionally become overweight. But why would people wish to do that? One example is that of a person who has been sexually abused and therefore (either on a conscious or unconscious level) wishes to make herself less attractive to men by becoming overweight in the hope that this will make her less likely to be the recipient of further sexual abuse. Similarly, a man who was cruelly and regularly beaten by his father as a child may be motivated (again, either on a conscious or unconscious level) to binge eat and become very large as a way of protecting himself from further physical harm.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).