Using EMDR to Treat Eating Disorders

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
December 7, 2020

Eating disorders can be extremely dangerous for the those that suffer from them. Drastic changes to food intake can make a person seriously ill, therefore it is crucial for those who struggle with managing their relationship with food to enlist help and support from a professional. The types of treatment approaches for eating disorders vary depending on the symptoms and severity. For instance, someone whose symptoms cause them to be at high risk for health complications may be deemed “medically unstable” and may need to be treated in an inpatient facility like a hospital. If there is less danger involved, a person can seek treatment in various settings such as intensive outpatient, outpatient, partial hospital, or residential facilities, all based on their symptoms and needs.

EMDR for Eating Disorders

Once a facility type has been chosen, a person who experiences symptoms of an eating disorder will be evaluated and treated by a mental health professional within that setting. Eating disorders have long been studied by both medical and mental health professionals; research shows there are various types of treatment can be effective for patients with eating disorders.

EMDR as a Treatment Method for Eating Disorders

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has long been studied and deemed an evidence-based treatment for treating PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Throughout its study and practice, people have begun to see benefits in using EMDR for other conditions, including eating disorders.

People who struggle with eating disorders often have painful or even traumatic memories and experiences that may have contributed to the development of their negative relationships with food and poor body image. Therefore, researchers and clinicians are beginning to use EMDR as a treatment approach to help those struggling with eating disorder symptoms to process any traumatic experiences or memories connected to their disordered eating behaviors.

During EMDR sessions that involve the rapid eye movement, a person focuses on a troubling memory or experience while simultaneously focusing on “external stimulus which usually consists of eye movements or other kind of bilateral stimulation, such as tapping or bilateral auditor tones.” During the session, the person is instructed to notice the thoughts, feelings, or images that arise and learns to create associations to the physical body movements that help them to integrate the painful memories in a different way.

Currently, scientific research has not formally confirmed that EMDR is specifically effective in treating eating disorders, even though there are many clinical indications that it is helpful. While the jury is out on whether EMDR can effectively treat those with eating disorders, a trained mental health professional will be able to work with a patient to determine which strategy is right for them.

Other Types of Evidence-Based Treatments for Eating Disorders

When a treatment is considered to be effective for a population suffering from particular symptoms that meet criteria for a diagnosis, it is labeled “evidence based.” Medical and mental health professionals use evidence-based approaches largely due to the scientific confirmation that these treatments actually help people experience relief, thus they are generally regarded as the most trusted forms of treatment available. Traditionally, the following approaches have been seen as the gold-standard of treating eating disorders:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Short-term therapy that helps a person notice how their thoughts affect how they feel, and how their feelings affect their behavior. Therapists who utilize this model of therapy will help their patients with eating disorders change their distorted thoughts about food and body image to help them reformulate healthier cognition that can reduce destructive behavior.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – This type of therapy helps a person to change their actions first before their thoughts or feelings. The person will realize that negative feelings or pain is a natural part of life and will learn how to detach from those emotions and work toward more positive behaviors.

Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT) – CRT helps a person learn to focus on more than one thing, resulting in less rigid thinking and alternative perspectives about their current eating issues. CRT has been found particularly helpful with adults with anorexia, though it hasn’t been studied with other eating disorders.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – DBT teaches people how to change their behavior by helping them learn to notice and tolerate distress. A person with an eating disorder will be challenged through DBT to replace problematic behaviors with skills such as mindfulness, communication skills, and emotional regulation.

Moving Forward with Treatment

The various treatment options should be discussed and considered with a professional. While some patients may have a specific bias towards one therapy modality, their therapist may point them in a different direction. It’s therefore important to choose a therapist with the right background and experience for treating eating disorders, and let them take the lead in selecting a treatment plan.

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events