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Eating Disorders and Sexual Violence

Why Eating Disorders Are Common Among Survivors of Sexual Violence

There is a strong link between sexual violence and eating disorders. After someone experiences a traumatic event, it is common for there to be an emotional response such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Finding healthy ways to cope with the effects of sexual violence can be extremely challenging, especially if you don’t have a strong support system. In order to feel fulfilled as a human, ensuring that your safety needs are met is crucial. When someone experiences sexual violence, their safety becomes jeopardized, which is why many survivors develop eating disorders as a subconscious coping mechanism for the trauma they encountered.

Of course, there are also many other factors that can contribute or cause an eating disorder. This includes genetics, environmental factors such as bullying, body shaming and the media, as well as certain mental health disorders like PTSD and body dysmorphia. Sometimes, an eating disorder is a cry for help, a way for those around you to understand that something is seriously wrong. It’s not easy to communicate how you feel with words, and a disorder that can physically show itself can act as a harmful form of expression. 

During the pandemic, there has been a major increase in eating disorders. This is because there is so little distraction and people are beginning to hyper-fixate on their bodies, using eating as a way to avoid certain emotions, thoughts and feelings. It’s a distraction that for many is easy to develop. For survivors of sexual violence, it can be extremely difficult to manage the effects of an assault during “normal” times, so you can imagine how challenging it can be during isolation.

Below are reasons why eating disorders and sexual violence are so closely related.

1. You want to feel control

As humans, we like to feel control in most aspects of our lives. When someone is sexually violated they experience a loss of control over their bodies, and their safety and security needs are put at risk. Sometimes, an eating disorder subconsciously acts as a way to gain that control back. This is because eating disorders dictate what you eat, how much you eat, as well as your physical appearance. Disorders such as anorexia nervosa are based on restriction, the constant surveillance of the food you consume, and in some cases over-exercising. It can give many people a feeling of power, and satisfaction to have a strong influence on how their body looks and feels, even if it’s dangerous for their physical and mental health. 

2. Temporary release of dopamine

For many people, food acts as a coping mechanism during times of stress, sadness, guilt and anxiety. Food can be comforting, and bring relief when one experiences negative emotions. Both binge eating disorder and bulimia involve eating large quantities of food, but those with bulimia purge after consumption. The act of binging actually releases dopamine, a chemical in our brain that allows us to feel pleasure and happiness. During an episode of binging, it is similar to a high which is why so many people do it, and oftentimes in secret. It’s a way to release those upsetting feelings, and distract yourself from the realities our minds have been facing. However, when the binging is over the feelings of negativity, and guilt from eating these extreme amounts of food wash over our brains. This is when many individuals are inclined to purge as they feel regretful after that consumption. For sexual violence survivors, binging can be a way to release pleasure chemicals which they may be struggling to feel. It is essentially a temporary switch in emotions. 

At VESTA, we understand how scary it can be to reach out for help, but already, reading this article is a great first step. An eating disorder isn’t something you should manage on your own. You deserve to be supported and given the necessary help and resources in order to thrive and heal. Below we have listed free helplines that specialize in eating disorders, and articles that go more into depth. There is also a link to a private, online counseling service that is affordable and easily accessible. Finally, it’s crucial that you speak with your primary care provider, as an eating disorder is not only a psychological issue, but a physical issue as well. They can guide you on getting professional help, and ensure the necessary steps to maintain healthy living. 

Written by: Taryn Herlich

Helpful Resources

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC): Toll Free Hotline

ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline

BetterHelp Affordable Counseling

Eating Disorder Facts and Information


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