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  Bad Experiences & Eating Disorders

The Relationship Between Bad Experiences and Eating Disorders

When bad things happen to good people
Sometimes eating disorders are linked to bad experiences a person has suffered. When bad things happen to good people, those people can end up feeling an a lot of badness inside. This feeling of badness should reflect only on whatever unfortunate events have happened; but frequently people come to feel bad about themselves, as if they are bad. A young woman who has been sexually assaulted, for instance, may blame herself for it, perhaps see herself as the cause of what occurred, or even see herself as having deserved it. This kind of negative belief or feeling about oneself can cause all kinds of problems, especially problems that are characterized by neglect or mistreatment of oneself and one's wellbeing. An eating disorder would fit with this picture and it commonly does.

What do you mean, "bad things"?
In the category of bad things that happen to people are such things as:

  • Isolated traumatic experiences, like a car accident or a bad medical procedure
  • A physical or sexual assault (including acquaintance rape)
  • Being in a fire
  • Anything out of the ordinary that is a shock to one's being and to one's sense of safety in the world.

Bad experiences that leave a mark on one's psychological state may also include ongoing circumstances and situations that are less obviously dramatic, for instance, such things as:

  • Being in a humiliating or abusive relationship
  • Living through the illness, death or suicide of someone close
  • Significant experiences of personal failure
  • Painful outcomes in relationships
  • Ongoing excessive stress or situations of being helpless
  • Growing up in a family where there was a great amount of punitiveness and harsh judgment
  • Witnessing terrible things (such as the images of September 11, 2001)

When a bad thing happens to your body
When a person has bad things happen to their body (such as injury, terrible illness, physical assault, sexual assault or molestation), they may show signs of their distress through their body. Sometimes people have physical symptoms caused by stress (e.g. headaches, irritable stomach, lowered resistance to colds/flu), and sometimes people take their distress out on their bodies (sleep deprivation, alcohol abuse, cutting). Eating disorders can be like this: starving, bingeing, vomiting, using laxatives, over-exercising all abuse the body. Many young women who have been sexually assaulted or abused (clearly violations to the body) are also bulimic. It is a kind of unconscious way to express and manifest their pain without directly talking about it

When one has no control
Almost by definition, the nature of a bad experience is that a person has (or feels they have) no control or power to do anything about what is happening to them. A common theme in eating disorders is control:

  • Persons with anorexia tend to strive for perfection and control.
  • Following an out-of-control binge, persons with bulimia may attempt to regain control by purging.
  • Persons who compulsively over-eat describe feeling uncontrollable urges to eat.
  • Ironically, once they can talk about it, people with each of these disorders admits feeling they have lost their own control of their lives, emotions, and body states to the control exacted by the eating disorder.

Food for coping
Using food and eating behaviors to cope is one's best attempt to feel better. But it doesn't really work in the end. To deal with painful experiences, some people try to manage their feelings by over-eating, under-eating or purging. These behaviors can and often do have the immediate effect of soothing, comforting, or numbing. Although these methods may be an effective short-term fix, they aren't effective in the long term and can have many negative consequences. The trick is to find alternative coping methods that help you feel better, but that don't interfere with your health and wellbeing. Often, people need help figuring out new ways to cope effectively.

Facing this
Remember it was the event that was bad; not you! Overcoming eating disorders associated with bad experiences involves:
(1) A willingness to seek help for your problems
(2) Seeking out a supportive professional relationship
(3) Gaining awareness of the link between one's eating patterns and the feelings and perceptions associated with bad experiences
(4) Learning new, healthy ways to cope effectively with emotional pain


Boston College Eating Awareness Team
Last Updated: January 28, 2002