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Transitioning From Military Service And Eating Disorders: Addressing Mental Health During The Adjustment Period

According to nutritional psychology experts, active military personnel, including veterans, suffer from eating disorders at higher rates than other populations. The transition from active military service to civilian life is a particularly important period for personalized eating disorder care.

Author:James Pierce
Reviewer:Karan Emery
Mar 16, 2024365 Shares30.3K Views
According to nutritional psychology experts, active military personnel, including veterans, suffer from eating disorders at higher rates than other populations. The transition from active military service to civilian life is a particularly important period for personalized eating disorder care.
While eating disorders can develop during this critical transition, however, they can also be resolved with the help of compassionate and knowledgeable therapists.

The Problem of Eating Disorders for Military Members

Studieshave found an association between military service and eating disorders. While research shows that both men and women in the military can suffer from these conditions, women appear to be particularly at risk. A survey conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association found that 60 percentof military women had an eating disorder. That alarming figure shot up to 97.5 percent when looking at the Marine Corps alone.
Eating disorders aren’t just harmful — they can even prove deadly. Indeed, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disordersreports that people with severe eating disorders attempt suicide at 11 times the rate of those who do not. The risk of suicide of those with anorexia is 18 times higher.
Why are so many soldiers, especially female ones, prone to eating disorders? The answer may stem from military culture.

How Military Culture Predisposes Soldiers to Eating Disorders

Military veteran Nick Padlo, CEO of Sophros Recovery, describes the military’s unique culture from his own experience. “In the military, we are indoctrinated intentionally into a system,” he explains. “From the haircuts and uniforms to the units and symbols, we are taught to be part of a greater whole rather than an individual. This has massive benefits in operational performance, but becoming such a part of our identity has drawbacks in defining who we are [in civilian life.]”
“Second, the military has a ‘tough-it-out’ mentality, which again is beneficial when called to do difficult things in combat, but doesn't work with mental help,” Padlo continues. “This resounding mantra of ‘I can do it. I can beat this,’ can be highly counterproductive when we would benefit from outside help and need to say, ‘I don't have this. I need support.’”
“Third, many veterans struggle with either PTSD or Operator Syndrome,” Padlo adds, “which is basically the brain and body's inability to return to their baseline after either a specific traumatic event (PTSD) or a prolonged state of hypervigilance (operator syndrome). When we experience traumatic things, our body reacts to stimuli as if this is still going on. While our lives are truly at risk in combat, they aren't often at risk during our civilian nine-to-five. Unfortunately, our body doesn't always know the difference.”

How The Transition To Civilian Life Can Trigger Eating Disorders

Psychotherapist and owner of Awaken Consulting ServicesMariya Javed-Payne, who heals trauma through a somatic practice called brainspotting, explains how these dynamics can play out for military members transitioning to civilian life.
“Many experiences can create a challenge to re-integrating — not feeling like others understand what you went through, experiencing traumatic incidents while away, disconnection from friends and family, trouble finding work, missing the closeness and order of the military unit, substance-use concerns, depression, etc.,” Javed-Payne says. “Eating disorders, like most compulsive behaviors, are a form of ritualized self-soothing. The behavior becomes an act to assuage distress but creates even more distress, and a vicious cycle ensues.”
There’s another name for this vicious cycle: addiction.
“For many people who struggle with substance abuse, often food was their first addiction,” says licensed mental health counselor and Vice President of Clinical Operations at Sophros Recovery Erin L. Moran. “Food can be one of the first things a person feels as though they can control (what and how much they eat). Feeling a sense of control tends to ease the tension a person feels when parts of life are out of control.”
According to Padlo, Javed-Payne, and Moran, there are empirically based, effective ways veterans can overcome these harmful eating disorders and reclaim their lives.

Solving veterans’ eating disorders

How can eating disorders be resolved successfully? According to Javed-Payne, overcoming these conditions requires understanding them.
“Compulsive behaviors are directly linked to the limbic system — the emotional centers of the brain — and hijack the reward pathway,” Javed-Payne explains. “These types of conditions are outside of the realm of logic. If logic worked to treat them, people could easily stop when they knew of the consequences they were having, but they usually don’t because the patterns are in the subcortical brain or limbic brain, out of reach from logic and reason.”
That’s why Javed-Payne recommends brainspotting as an effective treatment modality for eating disorders. “Brainspotting can be very helpful because it bypasses the logic centers where our defense mechanisms lie and accesses the dysregulated states directly in a deeply relational, somatic, and attuned way,” she says. “With this process, people can unburden themselves of the long-held feelings, beliefs, and unwanted states or patterns holding them back and naturally move into healthier states — feeling open, curious, grounded, engaged, or peaceful.”
Moran also encourages veterans with eating disorders to seek care. “Through treatment and recovery, people can learn to develop more healthy and compassionate relationships with themselves,” she says. “This includes sobriety, boundaries, healthy communication, increased body awareness, nutrition and wellness, financial security, and overall new ways of coping with life’s difficulties.”
Help is available, but for it to be effective, it must be sought. As Padlo explains, “To help veterans, we must end the stigma around getting help.”
Indeed, these experts agree. Despite what military culture might have taught you, to heal from eating disorders, you don’t have to tough it out and go it alone.
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James Pierce

James Pierce

Karan Emery

Karan Emery

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