What is trauma actually, and why is it important in recovering from ED?

By Ally Goult, MA, RCC


Before I went to grad school to become a counsellor, I heard the word “trauma” and always had this idea that it was only something people dealt with after serious abuse, a major accident, a natural disaster, or something else extreme. Trauma seemed like this super scary, huge thing that only a small percentage of the population was dealing with. Oh wow was I wrong! Before I go on to explain what trauma actually is, it’s so important to acknowledge that each and every new client I work with comes in thinking of trauma the same way I did before I had my mind blown in grad school, so if all of this is new to you, you’re not alone! Understanding what trauma actually has two important components: 1) trauma is not the “event” itself (car accident, etc) it’s how our nervous system reacts 2) trauma is anything that happens to us that feels like “too much, too fast.” Stop and think about that for a minute. Trauma is anything that has ever happened to us, that felt like too much was happening too quickly for us to feel calm.

For example, imagine you’re a kid and your soccer coach calls you out for a mistake you made. The experience is probably overwhelming, you don’t feel safe, you probably feel embarrassed. Your nervous system was just impacted in the same way compared to if you had just been in a big accident. Take that in! Yes, a car accident is more “too much too fast” than the embarrassment at soccer, but imagine that all the little moments like your soccer coach yelling at you add up, and create the same “scars” on your nervous system as the big accident.

Most people assume they have no trauma because they’re thinking about trauma as the big scary thing that most people don’t have. But thinking about it in this new way, most people start realizing they’ve actually been traumatized many times in their life. Now, why is this important to ED? Well, because all of our research shows that ED behaviours are a very common way to cope with the nervous system discomfort that happens after trauma. So, when we start to think of ED as a manifestation of trauma and not random behaviour, we can start treating the trauma itself, by soothing the nervous system. The safer the nervous system starts to feel, the less need there is to turn to behaviours (like ED), that were our old way of coping with how uncomfortable, unsafe, and out of control, our traumas have made us feel.

So anytime I’m working with a new ED client, I’m always looking out for trauma, and I’m always working to soothe that client’s nervous system.

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