By Thrive Sacramento’s Clinical Director, Gillie Francis, LCSW
Victims of sexual assault are significantly more likely to develop certain mental and behavioral health conditions, including eating disorders, according to one National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) study. Another study showed that 30% of patients with eating disorders were sexually abused in childhood. While sexual assault has been associated with many kinds of eating disorders, current research supports that bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED) are the most common types that develop following sexual assault.
Regardless of the eating disorder that may manifest as a consequence of sexual assault, experts observe that behaviors associated with the eating disorder are often self-harming in nature. These behaviors can include purging, calorie restriction, over-exercising, and binge eating.
HOW SEXUAL ASSAULT CAN CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF EATING DISORDERS
Broken Relationship With One’s Body
Sexual assault can severely impact how an individual perceives their body, their sense of control over their body, and their idea of safety within their body. By harming a person’s relationship with their body, sexual assault can lead to an eating disorder, as those with eating disorders typically experience such body struggles.
Decreased Sense of Safety
Individuals who have survived sexual assault may feel as if their environments are no longer safe. This perceived sense of being unsafe can cause increased feelings of distrust, isolation, and anxiety as well as difficulty making decisions. For many, focusing on decisions that seem simple such as what food they consume and how they move in the world through exercise become more manageable expressions of safety and control.
Coping With Emotional Distress
Additionally, eating disorder behaviors may help individuals cope with feelings of increased anxiety following the trauma of sexual assault. Because there may be more triggering experiences in everyday life, they may frequently find themselves in a state of high anxiety, causing them to rely on disordered eating behaviors as a way to regulate their emotions.
Further, eating disorder behaviors may help create space between the individual and the event by providing them with an all-encompassing outlet to focus on rather than the sexual assault.
While disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders may understandably serve as ways of coping with the trauma of sexual assault, they’re not healthy ways of processing one’s experience and emotions and will only serve to undermine the victim’s recovery.
TREATMENT AND RECOVERY FOR EATING DISORDERS AND SEXUAL ASSAULT
Because eating disorders have some of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, it’s vital to seek treatment that involves an integrated team of trained eating disorder therapists, dietitians, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists.
While the main focus of eating disorder treatment is healing through nutrition guidance, psychoeducation, and mental health support, individuals may also learn alternative, healthy ways to cope with their painful emotions. Some of these strategies include:
- Mindfulness practices: Such as breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, grounding practices, meditation, and yoga.
- Self-care: Any activities that express one’s self-love, promote their overall well-being, and fill their cup.
- Community involvement: Volunteering and community service can help individuals feel connected, purposeful, and part of something bigger than themselves.
- Taking a media detox: Unplugging from social media and the 24-hour news cycle can allow individuals time to decompress and recenter.
- Journaling: Writing one’s thoughts and emotions can be a cathartic, self-reflective, and even transformative experience.
Treatment can also implement trauma-specific therapy to support healing from sexual assault. Trauma-specific therapies include:
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR aims to integrate a person’s emotional experience with their cognitive experience to help them perceive a traumatic event with a greater sense of rationality.
- Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT): TF-CBT is a form of talk therapy used to treat childhood trauma.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): Through individual and group therapy, DBT aims to teach individuals skills to regulate their emotions, practice mindfulness, and create a life worth living.
- Emotion-focused therapy (EFT): EFT is a form of talk therapy that promotes emotional awareness and acceptance.
As individuals heal from both eating disorders and sexual assault, leaning into support from their family, friends, and community can be beneficial. Both family therapy and community support groups can help those in recovery feel less alone and safer, more connected, and more empowered.
Thrive aims to empower our clients through eating disorder treatment that encompasses all aspects of well-being and seeks to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Our team of specialists includes mental, physical, and behavioral health clinicians who collaborate to provide compassionate, individualized care to those struggling with eating disorders and coexisting conditions. Reach out to learn more about our eating disorder treatment programs, trauma-specific therapy, and other integrated health services.
NATIONAL RESOURCES FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT
Additionally, there are national resources available for individuals affected by sexual assault, including:
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline: A 24/7 crisis line that can be reached at 1 (800) 656-4673.
- The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN): The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
About the Author
Gillie Francis, LCSW — Thrive Sacramento’s Clinical Director
Gillie Francis received her master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Nevada and is a fully licensed LCSW in both Nevada and California. Her experience spans a variety of settings and levels of care including inpatient, residential, and outpatient and crisis services. Gillie has experience working with adults and adolescents with severe mental illness, eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation, personality disorders and other co-occurring disorders. Gillian is passionate about honoring each individual’s journey and utilizes approaches that emphasize empowerment with clients. Approaching her work with integrated modalities, she works with individuals to find their voice and engage in pivoting towards their values. She believes that each individual has the capacity for meaningful change in their lives. When she is not working with clients, she enjoys time outdoors with her spouse and dog, Charlie.