EMDR for Eating Disorders

EMDR and Eating Disorders [close up of an eye]
Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

By Runjhun Pandit, LPCC

EMDR….Sounds scary.

EMDR therapy, these acronyms make it sound like a scary treatment intervention. And oftentimes, when I mention this to my clients, they feel scared or confused. They do have questions about how it works and how it is different from hypnosis.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment specifically created to help people deal with a traumatic situation. It was initially developed for veterans who suffered flashbacks and nightmares upon return from war and were trying to readjust back to life with their families. Soldiers experienced reenactment of the wars in their dreams, emotional outbursts leading to frequent conflicts with their families, inability to maintain steady relationships, and dissociation from reality. EMDR hence was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. with the assumption that eye movements could assist in desensitizing to a traumatic situation. 

The limbic system in our brain is responsible for our behavioral and emotional responses while the brainstem and cortex are the areas that help in relaying the message from the spinal cord to the brain and store the verbal story of the events in our daily lives. When a person experiences a traumatic situation–like an accident or exposure to prolonged emotional distress like abuse or neglect– the usual coping mechanism that would help the person effectively “process” the situation, goes into overdrive. And the limbic system isolates this memory and stores it in the form of an emotional and physical sensation. Due to this isolation, the cerebral cortex doesn’t remember the “story” but the limbic system sends out an emotional response when some events in the present trigger some areas of the traumatic event. Hence, even if the memory is forgotten, the emotions attached to the memory– like pain, anxiety, or body sensations– continue to trigger the person in the present. This prevents a person from experiencing new situations or from living in the moment since oftentimes some parts of the present emotionally burden the limbic system. 

During EMDR sessions, the therapist creates a treatment plan and simulates eye movements similar to the ones that occur during REM sleep by asking the client to follow their fingers. Our brain has the natural capacity to heal itself. During the session, the therapist might also use a light bar to help you track the light across the visual field. These movements last for a minute and the therapist will ask you to report any experience–such as a change in emotions,, memories, or thoughts–after each set of eye movements. By repeating this process, the traumatic memory eventually loses its emotional charge and gets stored in the mind instead as a neutral memory. Frequently, people also have smaller memories associated with the actual traumatic memory which also may get resolved along the way. It has been noted that the “healing” of these smaller memories also creates a noticeable change in a person’s life. 

Although EMDR was developed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), growing evidence shows that it may also be helpful for the resolution of panic attacks, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and negative body image. EMDR helps clients process the traumatic memory and assimilate it in a healthier way without an emotional charge. Studies have shown that EMDR can be used in conjunction with Family-Based Treatment (FBT) or Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment (CBT) since these treatments focus on the here and now of the eating behavior while EMDR focuses on the past experiences around body image or food that maintain the disordered eating behaviors. Research has shown that EMDR generates a connection between body, emotions, and cognitions by allowing the elaboration of traumatic events and simultaneously resolving the emotional blocks attached to the traumatic memories. 

A complete EMDR treatment helps the person to “walk through” previously considered traumatic events with greater emotional and impulse control which eventually leads to an increase in feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. 

Runjhun Pandit, LPCC is available to see adolescents for EMDR via telehealth. EMDR can be helpful for food-related traumas and other traumas that might perpetuate eating disorder symptoms such as bullying, body shame, and other invalidating experiences.  To make an appointment with Runjhun Pandit, complete this form

Sources

Bloomgarden A, Calogero RM. A randomized experimental test of the efficacy of EMDR treatment on negative body image in eating disorder inpatients. Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. 2008; 16(5): 418–427.

Maria Zaccagnino, Cristina Civilotti, Martina Cussino, Chiara Callerame and Isabel Fernandez (February 1st 2017). EMDR in Anorexia Nervosa: From a Theoretical Framework to the Treatment Guidelines, Eating Disorders – A Paradigm of the Biopsychosocial Model of Illness, Ignacio Jauregui-Lobera, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/65695. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/eating-disorders-a-paradigm-of-the-biopsychosocial-model-of-illness/emdr-in-anorexia-nervosa-from-a-theoretical-framework-to-the-treatment-guidelines

Verardo A, Zaccagnino M, Lauretti G. Clinical applications in the context of attachment: the role of EMDR. Clinical applications in the context of attachment: the role of EMDR. Infanzia e Adolescenza. 2014; 13: 172–184