Sexual assault and other traumas affect the brain circuitries directly involved in the regulation of sleep and eating behaviors. Trauma also affects circuitries involved in depression and anxiety, and both of these affect sleep and eating. When depressed, it is common to have little appetite and to sleep too much or too little. Severe anxiety can make it difficult to sleep and sometimes the brain turns to food and eating, which can be very soothing and calming, as a brief escape from the anxiety.
Why do some survivors develop eating disorders?
Sexual violence can have an effect on your perceived body image and affect your eating habits. You may use food in an attempt to cope with the trauma, feel in control, or compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming. These actions only provide short-term relief, but they have the ability to cause long-term damage to your health.
What types of eating disorders are there?
Sexual violence can affect you in many ways, including body image concerns and a feeling of loss of control. While eating disorders can vary in type and severity, there are three main types of eating disorders.
- Anorexia nervosa: characterized by restriction and self-starvation that cause excessive weight loss and has a damaging effect on overall health
- Binge eating disorder: characterized by bingeing, the act of eating without control or response to normal hunger cues
- Bulimia nervosa: characterized by a cycle of binge eating and purging of food in some way, such as laxatives or self-induced vomiting
It’s also possible to engage in disordered eating that doesn’t fit into one of these categories but is still dangerous.
What are the warning signs of an eating disorder?
It’s often loved ones or people who spend a lot of time with the survivor who are the first to notice changes in behavior. Eating disorders are as different as the people who have them, but there are some warning signs that can tip off a loved one that something is wrong.
- Dramatic weight loss or gain
- Preoccupation with food, calories, and dieting
- Creating rules and categories for foods they will and won’t eat
- Wearing excessively baggy clothing
- Yellowing teeth or bad breath
- Frequent trips to the bathroom around meal time
- Cold hands or lowered body temperature
- Refusing to go out to eat or visit during mealtimes
- Rituals during mealtime such as chewing excessively, cutting up small bites, pushing food around a plate
Where can I find help and learn more?
Eating disorders are complex. Finding the right support is an important part of recovery. To be sure you’re finding a supportive network, you can locate resources at The National Eating Disorder Association, read stories of hope, or call their Helpline at 800-931-2237. You can also use the Safe Helpline responder database to connect with medical and mental healthcare providers on your base or installation.