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Teri McCann

Addressing the root of eating disorders

By Published: March 02, 2019 3:11 PM CT

In the United States, at least 30 million people of various ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder – that means roughly one of every 10 Americans will have symptoms of the disease. The prevalence is even greater in certain high-risk populations, including younger women, the LGBTQ community and members of the Armed Forces.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and impact all races and ethnic groups. In general, one is not born with an eating disorder. While it is true that genetics can play a role in one’s risk of developing the disease, it is also possible, with the appropriate caregiver presence, to have a genetic predisposition without actual manifestation of the disorder.

For many with symptoms of an eating disorder, trauma lies at the root of the disease. This is important to note since trauma can be treated, but genetics cannot.

The disease often begins due to emotional abuse, sexual abuse or even extreme self-criticism. Some trauma is related to the lack of secure attachments with caregivers or parental figures. Avoiding meals, extreme overeating, purging or vomiting after meals – all are coping behaviors intended to control overwhelming emotions.

The trauma behind the disorder must be addressed before the nutritional or behavioral practices will be effective. Often, this trauma is kept alive by self-criticism that develops at a very young age. This voice can lead to guilt and shame, and in order to silence it, one leans on the controllable factors in emotional life, such as the relationship with food. When the eating disorder takes center stage, feelings of hopelessness ensue. As a result, one’s self-identity becomes synonymous with the eating disorder.

Luckily, these patterns are identifiable, and countless research efforts have been dedicated to resolving this cycle of mental trauma. When provided the tools to transform self-criticism into self-leadership, one can rebuild a relationship with the inherent confidence that existed from birth. The journey toward recovery and emotional stability is not quick, and it is important to have a treatment team that can share their confidence in the ability to heal. However, if there is anything that research and clinical study has taught us, it’s that recovery is possible.

Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS is the founder and executive clinical director of Fairhaven Treatment Center near Memphis. She specializes in the treatment of eating disorders that are related to trauma and attachment disorder.

 

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