EMDR Shows Promise as Treatment for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating are frequently the result of severe trauma and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Studies indicate that well over half of all half of all women struggling with eating disorders are victims of trauma, often stemming from incidents occurring in childhood. Like drugs and alcohol, disordered eating can become a way of avoiding difficult memories and emotions.

Although PTSD is a term typically reserved for combat veterans and survivors of terrorism, the disorder can affect children and adults who have experienced or witnessed any type of severe trauma, including physical or sexual assault, bullying, natural disasters, accidents, divorce or the death of a loved one.

It’s also important to note that while eating disorders affect both genders, only about 10 to 15 percent of individuals diagnosed with the disorder are men. Onset of eating disorders is early, with most symptoms appearing before the age of 20, and often much younger. The mortality rate associated with eating disorders is higher than any other mental disorder. It is often a serious illness from which many people never recover.

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) has been used to help veterans affected by PTSD for more than 30 years. More recently, the technique, which helps the brain to heal itself, has shown great promise for other trauma victims, including those diagnosed with eating disorders. It is also used to help people struggling with trauma-associated mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, and conditions ranging from insomnia to performance anxiety and poor self-esteem.

For people with eating disorders, the goal of the technique is to address trauma by unlocking the reasons for destructive eating patterns. It involves a series of very short exercises, in which a therapist moves a light board, his fingers, or an object such as a pen in side to side motions while a client holds upsetting images in her mind. Instead of watching an object, the technique may involve other types of sensory, bilateral input, such as tapping or an earphone with tones that moves from one ear to the other. In time, trauma begins to lose its intensity.

When properly executed, both hemispheres of the brain are stimulated in a way that allows clients to release long-buried traumatic memories and learn to avoid destructive patterns that are often associated with eating disorders, such as self-harm, substance abuse or obsessive exercise. Sessions, which usually last 60 to 90 minutes, usually end with relaxation exercise that the client can practice at home.

Although the technique may seem simple, EMDR should be attempted only by experienced therapists who are trained in proper usage and protocol, as the release of traumatic memories can be extremely frightening and too intense for unprepared clients.

Each client must undergo thorough psychological and medical assessment before treatment begins. Clients must psychologically able to handle difficult emotions, and must be medically and nutritionally stable. A strong support system such as friends and family is also critical.

Drug and alcohol treatment or rehab is recommended when an eating disorder is accompanied by substance abuse or other underlying issues.

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