August 13, 2013

The Connection Between Trauma and Disordered Eating - Part 1

This week, we begin this series brought to us by Anne Cuthbert, who is both a friend and an amazing coach who is committed to helping people break their food and weight obsessions and finally break free of yo-yo dieting for good. In this series, Anne will talk with us about the connection between trauma and disordered eating and share some strategies for improving our relationship with food and breaking out of destructive, sabotaging patterns.

When I was a kid, I fanticized about starving myself. I wanted to so badly. I thought that somehow this would make me feel better – would make me be better.

When I was a kid, I didn’t feel loved. My father was gone, remarried to a woman with six boys. He didn’t have time for me and my siblings. On the rare visits to his home in another state, he spent his days drinking alcohol rather than spending them with us. He was also verbally and sometimes physically abusive. Not very nurturing, my mother spent her days at work and her evenings out with friends. She was distant, cold even. She rarely hugged me and the few touches she did provide had a “touch like a girlfriend” (as my brother put it). I seldom heard I was loved and never that I was beautiful.

Starving myself was a way to be good enough to get the love I was missing. At the very least, I might get some much needed attention.

Luckily, I had a little voice in my head urging me not to do it! “If you starve yourself, you’ll just have two problems, instead of one,” it insisted.

I remember this voice distinctly, even though at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what my first problem was. Now I know… it was the lack of feeling loved by my parents. This was the missing hole my self-esteem (and my life) revolved around.

I didn’t end up becoming anorexic. That voice saved me from that! However, I did spend the next several years on yo-yo diets, feeling guilt at everything I ate, comparing myself to every other woman I ever laid eyes on, hating my body, seeking any quick fix to my perceived weight problem and an overall obsession with food and my weight. I was miserable!

It wasn’t until years into my disordered thinking and relationship with food and weight that I realized why I focused on it so much. I remember the moment well. I was comparing myself, for the thousandth time, to a girl walking in front of me. If only I had her hair, her legs, her stomach, her everything…I would have friends and be loved too. If only…

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks!

I was wasting my life doing this comparison-never-being-good-enough thing! It wasn’t making me feel any better. What was I doing this for? At that moment, I was determined to change.

And I did.

A big part of that change was to heal my broken past. I used my relationship with food (and a lot of personal growth workshops) to do it. And that’s how I learned firsthand how to heal eating disorders and disordered thinking around food and body image. My life and my self-esteem have improved dramatically! No more fantasizing about changing my body to change my life.

Overeating, bulimia, anorexia, body hatred, fear of food, binging, purging, dieting, restricting are all ways to create a sense of safety, a sense of control – control over how you feel, control over your life. It’s an intense fear of being out of control and what would happen that you’re avoiding. Weight, after all, appears to be in your control. “If I can just be thin, I’ll be okay/good enough.” Or perhaps there’s a known or unknown fear of being thin and thus attractive. All of these are a way to create a safe place in an unsafe world.

Like my story…when you can’t express how painful, horrible, scary, powerless you feel in an abuse or trauma situation, you need something to help you cope. It’s the power of survival that we all have, especially as children without adult-skills to help. It’s literally what keeps you alive….along comes disordered eating to help you do just that!

It probably worked for a while. You focused on food for control or comfort. You focused on body dislike and how to fix it. You had a purpose – a way to make yourself better…perfect. It felt good.

However, over time, disordered eating stops feeling good; it stops working. The disordered eating patterns get worse. You feel more and more out of control with food. You isolate further and shame expands. Now, your inner world is also no longer safe. Now your disordered eating is painful.

Believe it or not, the eating disorder has helped you! That was its intention all along…to help you feel better, safer, lovable, good enough. It just got too big. It started to take over as the main-dish coping mechanism. You may not even know how much it’s helping you to cope. And you may not know how to stop…

The true story about eating disorders is: It isn’t about food or your body – it’s about your feelings.

That’s right. It’s about what you feel and how you feel it.

Disordered eating is about pushing down your feelings and filling a void that’s inside. It’s about avoiding fear, shame, anger, sadness and loneliness. It’s about disconnection and distraction.

Not only does disordered eating help you push down your emotions but it also acts as a distraction from your emotions.

After all, when you spend a large portion of your time thinking about food, what you’re going to eat, how fat you might get or already are, how much you want a cookie and how horrible you are for eating that cookie – or 10 cookies, how can you think about anything else? It’s a great way to disconnect from your body, a body that has betrayed you.

And once you’re in this cycle, it’s hard to get out of it!

But you can! I will tell you how. In the next two articles, I will define the different types of disordered eating and show you how to get out of the pattern of using food to cope with your feelings.


Anne Cuthbert knows first hand what it’s like to deal with food and body issues. As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California and a Licensed Professional Counselor in Oregon, with a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Antioch University, Anne’s counseling experience spans over 12 years. She has studied and worked with experts in the eating disorder field, taught counseling and communication skills classes, and assisted and managed several personal growth seminars and support groups. Anne provides individual and group counseling as well as body image workshops to people who want to make friends with food and peace with their body. 

Go to: to learn more and receive a free gift to help you get started.


  1. Growing up I had been teased by my brothers about my weight. My mom was overly worried about her and the weight of all three boys.

    At 20 I started to eat less and less getting down to 125. Now at 51 I have gone up and down in weight more times than I can count.

    I had a lot of trauma from age 4 to 18 on and off by many people.

    I also had gone through a few counselors dealing with my body image problems. I do pretty good now with it but there will always be some body image problems.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your story. It is so common that our learned behaviors are born out of what is modeled for us by our caregivers. I commend you for doing the work to heal in this area of your life!


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