My Eating Disorder Protects Me: Development of an Eating Disorder Following Sexual Abuse

woman walking down stairs

By: Magnolia Creek Staff

When someone experiences sexual abuse of any kind, the world viewed as a place to live, laugh, love, and connect is suddenly unsafe. When someone loses control of dictating what happens to their body helplessness and a sense of losing control washes over them. It’s an ultimate betrayal.

In the aftermath of sexual violation, it’s normal for people to experience a variety of responses. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network explains 96% of women who are sexually assaulted will exhibit symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for at least two weeks following the assault.1 Symptoms may include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive images, avoidance of situations that remind people of the experience, heightened reactivity to environmental stimuli (hypervigilance), anxiety, depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mistrust, emotional detachment, engagement in high-risk behaviors, irritability, and/or isolation. Many people experience denial, telling themselves it was not assault or was their fault. Regardless of the response, we try  to make sense of what happened, ensure our safety, and process the experience, all while focus on survival.

We are wired for safety and survival; our brains are pain avoidant. Putting our hand on something hot leads to a reaction to pull it back immediately. When we sprain an ankle, we reach for an ice pack to decrease swelling or numb the pain. Those who intentionally harm themselves or put themselves in high-risk situations are looking for pleasure or a change of emotions, describing it as a high. The intent is not pain, but the pleasure that follows.  

The same concept applies to emotional pain. When we experience any form of distress or emotional pain we look for ways to relieve it. Drinking after a hard day or work, escaping the home environment, or working long hours to stay busy are ways of alleviating pain. To relieve stress, we may play sports or go to the gym, or we may isolate ourselves and try to sleep it away. Whatever our behavior, the intent is to lessen or eliminate pain and discomfort.

When a person experiences sexual trauma, the brain responds  to the threat of safety by engaging survival responses. By nature, when our survival instincts rise, so do our levels of anxiety. With sexual trauma, much of the anxiety experienced results from a loss of control over our safety. Thinking about eating disorder behaviors in this context, they meet multiple needs for  finding relief through changing distressing emotions, distracting to promote the continued existence of denial, and regaining feelings of control, fostering increased feelings of safety.

Let’s break this down further:

1. Eating Disorders Help to Change Distressing Emotions

  • Engaging in binging, purging, restricting, and/or over-exercising all influence the release of neurotransmitters (pleasure chemicals) in our brains. Increased levels of dopamine and endorphins occur following any of these behaviors which provide an immediate, but temporary relief  through a numb or pleasurable feeling. 
  • Due to what is learned in society as “beautiful”, and their personal feeling of worth and love, some individuals strive for a body size that will make them happy.  Research on happiness, however, suggests that focusing on extrinsic factors (like image) negatively impact someone’s happiness levels; it is why some can reach their “goal weight” and still be unhappy.  

 2. Eating Disorders Help to Re-Gain Feelings of Control

  • When loss of control results in physical or emotional harm, it is normal to want control  to feel safe. When individuals feel unable to control the environment or people around them, they sometimes turn the need to control to their bodies. They may not have had control over their surroundings or bodies during the abuse, so they create opportunities (usually subconsciously) to regain feelings of control. 
  • Self-blame and self-punishment can also be ways to re-assert control. Blame is defined as a way of discharging pain and discomfort. Blaming someone else means they had no control over the situation or others; it feels safer to blame ourselves.  Self-blame also fosters continued existence of denial; assigning responsibility to someone else requires us to acknowledge they did something to us and must take responsibility. We tell ourselves “if we did something to cause the abuse, then maybe we can change what we do in the future to make sure this never happens again.” Sometimes the behaviors  accompanying  this belief system are self-blaming and self-punishing in nature. For example, some people limit their food intake or engage in purging behaviors because they feel they are not worthy or deserving of healthy nourishment.  

 3. Eating Disorders Help to Distract Individuals and Promote Further Denial

  • Eating disorders take an immense amount of thought and time. Sometimes thoughts about food or body image are less anxiety-provoking than the events that caused or amplified the level of emotional distress. Worrying about food, exercise, and/or body size is stressful, but for some, it serves as a distraction (consciously or subconsciously) to thoughts or memories that may be more fear-inducing and distressing. 

In the aftermath of sexual abuse, eating disorders provide relief and protection from what an individual’s mind tells them might be worse. Using eating disordered behaviors to cope, still harms the body and the experiences and beliefs that contributed to the development of the need to numb are not being addressed. Eating disordered behaviors may provide a temporary sense of relief, but do not  offer long-term, sustainable solutions that assist in processing the events.

Don’t allow the thing you used to regain your control and find relief be the thing that controls you for the rest of your life. Peace and recovery are possible. There are people here to support you every step of the way.  

If you or someone you love is struggling with the effects of sexual abuse or eating disordered behaviors, you are not alone. If you would like more information on resources available to assist you or guidance on how to support a loved one, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at Magnolia Creek by calling 205-409-4220, completing our contact form or emailing Kristin at  We believe every person is deserving of a life of peace and recovery, and we would be honored to support the start of your healing journey however we can.





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