Is there a link between self-harm and eating disorders?
Self-harm in its broadest sense incorporates eating disorders as a type of harm to your health and body. But there are also links between self-harm and different types of eating disorders. Both behaviours affect a lot of young people, and they share a lot of the same traits, such as low self-esteem, a perfectionist personality, anxiety and sometimes a history of trauma, abuse or family difficulty. Of course every person and situation is different, though, and so we recognize that although these are the common themes they are not the only reasons behind such behaviours, and not everybody will cross over between the two.
The prevalence of self-harm in people with eating disorders is thought to be about 25%, and is particularly high among people who engage in the binge-purge cycle of Bulimia Nervosa. For many, self-harm and an eating disorder co-exist, but for others self-harm can develop to replace an eating disorder or vice versa. If someone tries to give up their harming when they are not psychologically ready (for example, doing it to please someone else) then another self-destructive symptom can easily develop in its place. This is because both conditions act as ways for an individual to cope with, block out, and release intense feelings of anger, shame, sadness, loneliness, or guilt. A person needs to be able to address these feelings and find ways of dealing with them in order to break free of the harming cycle.
For some people self-harm and eating disorders could also be a type of punishment and way of expressing self-hatred towards the body. If somebody has poor self-image and is suffering with an eating disorder, they probably experience feelings of self-loathing, which in turn leads to a lack of respect for their body. This can then open the door to something like self-harm. Within the world of someone with disordered eating, especially one built around control and routines, the addition of self-harm might then also become a way of punishing the self for not sticking to a strict routine, or provide relief from the constraints of that routine. The relationship between the two conditions is complex and can differ from person to person.
Self-harm often goes alongside other emotional difficulties and it is really important that all things are considered together and addressed fully, even if it is decided that the different symptoms will be treated separately. Self-harm and eating disorders, especially when occurring together, can seem like an impossible cycle to be trapped in, but recovery from both is very possible. Seeking professional support gives someone the best chance of making a full recovery.
If you or anyone you know is affected by an eating disorder, you can talk-one-to-one with someone from Beat via their web chat service.