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What are the Different Types of Psychotherapy for Eating Disorders?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Psychotherapy for eating disorders commonly includes techniques to teach a patient to recognize and change distorted thoughts. Some therapists use cognitive behavior therapy to change perceptions and improve self-esteem. Others use psychoanalytic therapy, which focuses on emotions and the exploration of the patient’s relationship with food. The psychodynamic theory allows the patient to direct anger at the therapist to encourage assertiveness. Hypnosis, visualization, and relaxation techniques are alternative forms of psychotherapy for eating disorders.

Cognitive behavior therapy is generally considered the most effective and common form of psychotherapy for eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating. In this method, the therapist helps the patient recognize unrealistic thoughts that drive destructive behavior. The patient might come to realize he or she puts too much emphasis on the desire to be perfect, and that self-esteem is based solely on weight. A therapist commonly teaches the patient to acknowledge other strengths and change thoughts that center on flaws.

During psychodynamic therapy for eating disorders, therapists allow the patient to express anger linked to painful relationships to the doctor. This theory is based on the belief that eating disorders are connected to unresolved conflicts with others, and once those conflicts are dealt with, healthier coping skills can be discovered. Assertiveness training is commonly part of this type of psychotherapy for eating disorders.

Emotional pain is the basis for the psychoanalytic therapeutic form of psychotherapy for eating disorders. The patient might gain an understanding of emotional reasons for the illness, and how relationships with people and food affect eating problems. This therapy can be done individually or in groups.

Three basic forms of eating disorders exist. People suffering from anorexia commonly do not eat in an attempt to lose weight, even if they are extremely thin. Bulimics might binge on large quantities of food, but then vomit, use laxatives, or extreme exercise to get rid of the calories consumed. Binge eaters may behave similarly to bulimics by eating excessive amounts of food, but they rarely purge.

Eating disorders may stem from a culture of perfection reinforced through advertising. Patients with the disorder might attempt to attain an ideal that is unrealistic and find themselves in a cycle that seriously affects their health. They may become addicted to abnormal eating habits driven by an unhealthy perception of their body, and strive to become accepted or desirable. Some people with an eating disorder see themselves as ugly and fat even when their weight is dangerously low.

Psychotherapy for eating disorders might include family or group therapy sessions led by a professional trained in the field. Family therapy may address dysfunctions that contribute to the problem. One goal of this therapy is to unite the family so it can support and understand the core reasons for unhealthy eating habits.

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