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EMDR Therapy for Eating Disorders

treatment for eating disorders

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are characterized by severe and persistent disturbances in eating behavior, and by distressing thoughts and emotions associated with eating. They can have very serious effects on an individual’s physical, psychological, and social well-being. Eating disorders affect approximately 5% of the population, and although many of them are more common in women, either sex can develop them, at any age.

What are the Most Common Eating Disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa

People with this disorder view themselves as overweight, even if they are underweight. This perception leads to the individual making a concerted effort to lose weight in order to get their health under control. In their minds, they are taking responsibility for a problem that has gotten out of hand. 

In fact, they may be putting their own health in danger by meticulously counting calories, skipping meals, and exercising. Those with anorexia often display symptoms of OCD, having a fear-based obsession to maintain a body image that – while ideal in their minds – is unhealthy. Such individuals base too much of their self-esteem on their appearance.  

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is characterized by a desire to eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. Although the individual may eat anything during this period, they often favor foods that they would not normally eat. Binging episodes typically last until the individual becomes physically ill, whereupon the binger will display some sort of purging behavior; these can include induced vomiting, laxatives, enemas, fasting, and even exercise. 

A key characteristic of this disorder is that bingers often feel as though they cannot stop eating during binges. Severe cases can result in severe nutritional imbalances, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.


Pica is a disorder in which the individual consumes things which are not considered food. For a diagnosis of Pica, the consumed material must be outside of the social norm for that person, and also outside of their religion or culture. As one might imagine, consumption of non-food items can cause serious digestive problems and injuries, as well as poisoning or nutritional deficiencies.


Similar to Bulimia Nervosa, these two eating disorders are each characterized by half of its symptoms. Non-bulimics who binge have no desire to purge themselves after eating. Likewise, purgers have intense desires to purge themselves, but not to binge. 

Both problems have a number of different challenges for the individual, and some of them are life-threatening. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are potential consequences of binging; purging can lead to nutritional imbalances, damage to the esophagus, and possibly a heart attack or stroke. 

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)


Though recently classified, ARFID has been around a long time. Normally diagnosed in children under seven years of age, ARFID can persist even to adulthood. ARFID is characterized by a pattern of eating behaviors that cause a person to under eat. 

Sometimes the individual reacts negatively to food with a certain smell, taste, or temperature (etc.), or sometimes the individual just doesn’t enjoy eating. This excessive behavior falls outside of the normal tendency for toddlers to be picky about certain foods, and has nothing to do with a desire to avoid foods for religious or cultural reasons.


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eating disorder treatment

EMDR Therapy for Eating Disorders

Many kinds of addiction or other mental disorders are rooted in trauma. The reason that the individual continues to exhibit dysfunctional behavior patterns is that on some deep level, they are still controlled by those traumatic experiences. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a kind of therapy that requires special training and is used to treat trauma-based conditions.

The basic principle is that reprocessing the trauma in one’s memory can happen through bilateral stimulation, using eye movements and sometimes moving lights or electronic hand tappers. When the therapist helps the patient to experience the emotions, sensations and thoughts associated with traumatic experiences while using bilateral stimulation, the memory networks and the emotional responses can be “rewired”, thus releasing the trauma. 

After several sessions, the patient should arrive at a place where the memory of those traumatic moments (regardless of how visceral or painful their recall may be) will no longer control the behavior of the patient. Eventually the emotional experience of those memories should fade to a small fraction of what it was before.

How does EMDR help a Patient overcome an Eating Disorder?

Many people who struggle with an eating disorder experienced something when they were younger that fundamentally changed their relationship to food. In some cases, those experiences were acutely painful, or traumatic. Perhaps it was one event, or maybe several over a long time. Whatever the case, the individual’s perspective of food and eating as a behavior has been conditioned by their experiences into a dysfunctional pattern. A therapist’s goal is to break that pattern. 

The purpose of EMDR is to break the connection between the trauma caused by the patient’s past and their behavior. It does this by reducing (and hopefully eliminating) the emotional response when the patient revisits those difficult moments. Once the individual has separated their emotional distress from the pain of the past, they can respond differently when confronted with the temptation to engage in dysfunctional eating patterns. The opportunity to do the wrong thing is still available, but the fear the individual had associated with the correct choice is only a shadow of what it once was.

In time, the patient begins to choose healthy behavior related to eating. And he or she will begin to realize that eating normally is no big deal. As the fear associated with normal eating patterns fades away, they can develop normal behavior patterns, normal emotions, normal expectations.

how to overcome eating disorders
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Jim Brillon provides EMDR Treatment for People suffering from Eating Disorders


Jim Brillon continues to serve the people of Orange County as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Trained in EMDR, he has the know-how to help you if you currently suffer from a trauma-based condition. Call our office today, and we will be happy to make an appointment for you to meet with Jim and begin your journey to recovery. 

Reach Out When You're Ready.