Is EMDR Therapy Useful for Eating Disorder Treatment?
If you have experience with trauma-informed mental health care, it's quite possible that you're also familiar with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This therapy is an intervention used to help the brain resolve unprocessed traumatic memories, as well as the thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and physical reactions or sensations connected to those memories.1 But, is EMDR therapy useful for eating disorder treatment? That's a nuanced question without a one-size-fits-all answer. However, as someone who is currently in the thick of EMDR sessions myself, I want to examine its potential benefits for eating disorder recovery.
What EMDR Therapy Is and How It Relates to Trauma
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy works by activating the area of the brain where traumatic memories are stored.2 When a situation occurs that feels too distressing or unsafe to be dealt with normally, the brain dissociates from the present, which causes the memory to store this incident as a series of flashes and frgments rather than as a linear event. In other words, you might not remember the specific details or chronological order in which a traumatic circumstance took place; but you'll have an intense reaction to a sight, smell, sound, or other sensory experience that urges your mind to recall a flashback of the trauma.
As a result, you might feel startled, anxious, distraught, scared, furious, hypervigilant, or even immobilized—like you are reliving the incident in real time. When this occurs, your brain cannot differentiate between the previous trauma itself and the sensation that evoked your state of alarm in the present, making it difficult to safely process and heal. But that's where EMDR therapy comes in.
During an EMDR session, a licensed practitioner will ask you to focus on a certain memory associated with the trauma while you perform a sensory, tactile motion at the same time. For instance, you might cross both arms over your chest, then alternate between touching your left and right shoulders with the opposite hands in a rhythmic fashion. In most cases, you'll also move both eyes from left to right as well, without turning your head. This pattern is called bilateral stimulation, and the therapy posits it can help you release the complex web of unresolved mental, emotional, and behavioral responses that your brain has attached to the traumatic memory, neutralizing its influence over your current life experience.3
How EMDR Therapy Can Help in Eating Disorder Treatment
Now back to the original question I posed at the start of this article: is EMDR therapy useful for eating disorder treatment? I believe it can be, as I have reaped the benefits of this intervention in my own healing. However, it's worth noting that EMDR is not used to treat the surface-level symptoms and behaviors of an eating disorder. This therapy alleviates underlying trauma, which could be at the root of those eating disorder behaviors.
After all, an eating disorder is often just a coping mechanism to detach from the pain of traumatic circumstances and uncomfortable, overwhelming emotions that feel out of your control. So, if EMDR therapy can resolve the actual source of this pain, it could minimize your compulsion to reach for the false security of an eating disorder. The reason for that is simple: you won't need an escape hatch anymore.
Instead, you will have a framework to identify, feel, express, and move through emotions in a way that promotes heaing, rather than continuing the cycle of repressed trauma. I have undergone EMDR sessions to help successfully neutralize traumatic memories of childhood bullying, sexual assault, family instabilities, and marital issues—all of which contributed to or exacerbated my eating disorder over the years. So, is EMDR therapy useful for eating disorder treatment? Because each recovery process is unique, I can't speak for everyone. But for me, the answer happens to be a resouning, "yes."
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. (2017, July 31). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing
EMDR Therapy: What It Is, Procedure & Effectiveness. (2022, March 29). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/22641-emdr-therapy
Amano, T., & Toichi, M. (2016, October 12). The Role of Alternating Bilateral Stimulation in Establishing Positive Cognition in EMDR Therapy: A Multi-Channel Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Study. PLOS One Journal. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5061320/
Schurrer, M. (2022, September 21). Is EMDR Therapy Useful for Eating Disorder Treatment?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, September 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2022/9/is-emdr-therapy-useful-for-eating-disorder-treatment