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Rethinking Treatment Approaches: EMDR for Eating Disorders

Recovery from an eating disorder goes beyond food and body image issues; it delves into the individual's deeper struggles. The visible symptoms involving food are often merely the tip of the iceberg, indicating underlying suffering. Emphasizing the importance of addressing trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in relation to eating disorders is essential. This connection underscores the significant impact that Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can have on the journey to healing and recovery.

PTSD & Eating Disorders:

Per Franco (2018), the typical symptoms of C-PTSD often stem from negative self-assessment and self-image, as well as difficulties in managing intense emotions safely. This underscores the potential for C-PTSD to contribute to the development of an eating disorder in individuals. While not everyone with PTSD will develop an eating disorder, there is a significant link between Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and eating disorders. Eating disorders frequently evolve into chronic conditions that are accompanied by medical complications, psychosocial challenges, and additional mental health conditions. 

C-PTSD derives its complexity from being caused by multiple adverse events rather than a single traumatic incident. This coincides well with the Transdiagnostic Model proposed by Fairburn and colleagues in 2003 suggests that eating disorders stem from a common core issues including the excessive importance placed on eating, weight, and body shape, and the need to control them that is intertwined with other factors such as clinical perfectionism, low self-esteem, difficulties managing intense emotions, and interpersonal challenges.It is crucial to recognize the underlying motivation behind eating disorder behaviors, as they often act as coping mechanisms for the individual.

The Eating Disorder’s Deep-Rooted Purpose:

Behaviors related to eating disorders, like restriction, purging, and binge eating, often function as a way to numb intense emotional reactions. Individuals may rely on these behaviors to prevent themselves from completely unraveling emotionally. This fear can hinder their ability to make progress in recovery.

EMDR & Eating Disorders:

There are various approaches to working with individuals who have eating disorders and C-PTSD. However, the complexity of dealing with both diagnoses can present significant challenges, which is why EMDR is a beneficial treatment modality.

The enduring trauma of C-PTSD can greatly impact an individual's functioning and distort how memories are stored, leading to deeply ingrained negative self-beliefs. EMDR specifically targets these negative beliefs that have developed as a response to trauma, and this therapy form is particularly effective in addressing the obstacles encountered in treatment.

In EMDR, the individual is not required to vividly recall past events in a linear fashion. Instead, the individual takes control of the process. The eight-phase protocol of EMDR places emphasis on establishing safety and preparing the individual before delving into trauma work. By engaging the brain's memory networks and focusing on the present moment with dual attention, EMDR taps into the individual's inherent healing capacity

Why Is EMDR Beneficial For Eating Disorders: 

Providing trauma-focused care is vital when addressing individuals with either or both diagnoses, and EMDR is a beneficial treatment option, offering comprehensive psychotherapy. EMDR therapy can be beneficial for addressing the multiple issues:

  • Experiencing distressing memories

  • Negative thoughts about ones self/low self-esteem

  • Fears related to eating disorders

  • Behaviors driven by urges related to eating disorders

  • body

  • Distorted perception of body image


EMDR Therapy Is Safe For Individuals With Eating Disorder: 

Traditional treatments for eating disorders often place emphasis on addressing food and exercise behaviors without delving into the underlying root causes. 

While it is commonly believed that EMDR may not be suitable for individuals with eating disorders who are underweight, there is insufficient evidence to support this assertion. A person's BMI should not be seen as a deterrent for them to explore the transformative benefits of EMDR therapy, as one's BMI does not dictate their capacity to effectively process information during therapy. 

Contrary to the misconception that individuals with a low BMI may struggle to engage in EMDR therapy, recent research, including a 2016 clinical trial and a 2022 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, has demonstrated the safety and positive clinical efficacy of EMDR for underweight individuals with eating disorders. In my experience working with this population, I firmly believe that EMDR intensives offer a secure and impactful approach to delivering life-changing and potentially life-saving results.

EMDR is not the final destination in the recovery process. However, it can be a crucial step for individuals to recognize how they use behaviors to suppress their emotions. By understanding this, they can develop a healthier connection with their body and cultivate positive beliefs about themselves, their surroundings, and their future. Eating disorders are the most fatal of all psychiatric conditions due to our fixation on traditional treatment methods and our reluctance to explore alternative approaches.


Check out EMDRIA’s list of references, research, and more about EMDR and Eating Disorders.

EMDR Therapy Saved Me and Could Bring You Hope


Dr. Dusty

Special love and thanks to the beautiful SB <3

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