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EMDR for Eating Disorders

EMDR for Eating Disorders

By: Breanna Potts M.S.

Hi there! I’m so glad you’re here. Maybe you clicked on this blog because you want to know all things EMDR, or maybe you have been on the fence when it comes to looking more into it for your healing journey. Or, maybe you are among the many that feel overwhelmed by yet another acronym in the therapy world and have no best guess as to what EMDR is. Regardless of your reason, welcome! I hope I can help demystify EMDR and leave you with some clarity and helpful new knowledge!

What is EMDR?

So, first things first, what is EMDR? I’m so glad you asked. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, and it is an evidence-based psychotherapy effective in treating a wide range of mental health disorders such as PTSD, eating disorders, anxiety, phobias, OCD, among others. EMDR is an 8-phase protocol that uses a lot of fancy brain science words such as Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) and bilateral stimulation (BLS) to help treat a range of mental health disorders. AIP refers to the way your brain stores information and BLS refers to the ways we can work to stimulate both sides of your brain. We aren’t even two paragraphs in and there’s already more acronyms, I know, but hang in there and keep reading because I will break down all the things and make it easier to understand!

What happens in EMDR?

Okay, a lot happens in EMDR, so let’s use some examples! For starters, I think we all have unfortunately had the experience of touching a hot pan that just came out of the oven, which resulted in nearly singeing your skin off and made you say some colorful words, am I right?  If you shared in this experience at some point in your life, it probably hurt really badly and you most likely left that situation taking a mental note that pans straight from the oven are hot and shouldn’t be touched. Congratulations! Life lesson learned AND you experienced the AIP model in your brain working properly because your brain processed an uncomfortable/distressing/painful event and learned to use that information in a way that allows you to engage with pans and ovens in a way that is safe! Now you can live in harmony with hot ovens and pans. Overall, when AIP properly processes events, you increase your self-awareness and learn from the event.

Pink flowers

Now let’s look at what maladaptive processing looks like. AIP working maladaptively is when information isn’t properly processed after a distressing event. When information isn’t properly processed and you face a present-day event that reminds you of the original distressing event, your brain accesses the original event, causing those uncomfortable emotions, body sensations, and unhelpful beliefs to resurface. Let’s make this make sense. Say the first time you received a not-so-great grade on a math test was in 3rd grade and your friends made fun of you for it, which made you feel a lot of shame, a racing heart, and you had the thought, “I am not smart enough.” Fast forward to 9th grade and let’s say you got a grade you weren’t hoping for on your math test and immediately your heart starts running, you tell yourself you are not smart enough, and you feel shame. In this scenario, your AIP did not properly process the event from 3rd grade, which is why you felt the same feelings, and sensations, and had the same thoughts. This is because when AIP stores information maladaptively, your brain accesses the original event, causing those uncomfortable emotions, body sensations, and beliefs to resurface.

In EMDR, we reprocess those distressing events that got stored in your brain maladaptively using bilateral stimulation (BLS). BLS is the process of activating both sides of your brain with the use of tactile approaches such as buzzers/tappers, or through eye movements, or auditory approaches, which is essential in reprocessing traumatic and distressing memories. There are many different forms of BLS you can use with your therapist such as: 

  • Watching a ball on a screen go back and forth (I promise we are not hypnotizing you!!)

  • Alternating taps which can look like sitting in a chair, feet on the floor, and having you alternate tapping on the top of your legs left and right

  • Buzzers you hold in your hand that alternate vibrations, left and right

  • Auditory forms of BLS, which will alternate sounds in your ears

  • Alternating butterfly taps across your chest

Please note that you are the one doing the tapping in BLS. The goal is to find a method that feels most comfortable for you!

At this point, EMDR is probably sounding really strange, and to be honest, it is strange, but it works! We don’t fully know why BLS works, but a lot of the research suggests that it mimics what happens in REM sleep. When you are in REM sleep, your eyes are moving rapidly back and forth, lighting up both sides of your brain as you process the events of the day and escape off to dreamland! During this phase of sleep, you are storing events from short-term to long-term memory and when events are stored in long-term memory, new synapses in your brain are created! Sometimes these new synapses are useful such as remembering the way to take to school or work or learning to play an instrument, but synapses created after a traumatic event can keep us stuck and in survival mode, such as having an intense emotional reaction to a certain smell that reminds you of the traumatic experience. So, when we use BLS in EMDR, we are creating new associations with the event so that you are able to experience healing and navigate future challenges and triggers in a way that is adaptive and helpful. Your brain is so powerful and resilient!

How can EMDR help with my eating disorder recovery?

EMDR is effective in the treatment of eating disorders because very often, eating disorders develop as a result of trauma. Now of course this is not everyone’s story and please know that your struggle and suffering is still 100% valid even if there is no trauma history!! However, in the event that there is a trauma history, EMDR gets to the root causes of your eating disorder using all the fancy methods I explained above by identifying the core memories, uncomfortable emotions, negative beliefs, and body sensations and using BLS to activate both sides of your brain to help you reprocess those events and store them adaptively. In eating disorders, rarely are eating disorders behaviors only about food. Rather, food is often the substance that is representative of a response to trauma. With your therapist, you will likely uncover themes and emotions underneath your behaviors and explore your relationship with food and your body. This can help you better understand how your eating disorder developed and bring up some really hard and heavy feelings you’ve been carrying. All the emotional unpacking that happens can shed light onto what EMDR would reprocess. 

We know healing is such hard and tiring work sometimes and we wholeheartedly believe in your strength, resiliency, and ability to experience the healing you so very much deserve. Whether your behaviors show up as restriction, bingeing, purging, or any form of compensation, those behaviors are often evident of unresolved, deeply rooted, maladaptively stored experiences and events. With EMDR, the work that happens will lessen the emotional charge, or emotional intensity, you feel related to these events and memories and ultimately help alleviate the use of your symptoms. In other words, when you get to the root of your suffering and begin to reprocess those things, your eating disorder symptoms will ultimately decrease. 

While EMDR helps lessen the emotional intensity surrounding traumatic memories and helps decrease use of symptoms, let me just pause and gently remind you that you are human and because of our humanness, we have the ability to feel a vast range of emotions. Because of this, you may still feel emotional even after reprocessing, but this might be in the form of feeling grief towards all you have experienced and having self-compassion for those versions of yourself that had overcome a lot of experiences. My hope is that you feel encouraged that with time and with continued reprocessing, you will experience the fruits of your hard healing work. Healing is SO possible! While EMDR is a successful, evidence-based therapy, everyone is different and will have different experiences, so please be careful not to fall into the trap of comparison. Your experiences are valid and they matter, YOU matter, even if you feel like someone “had it worse.” Comparison is the sneakiest form of invalidation, so be gentle and kind with yourself! I encourage you to ask questions and explore EMDR further with an EMDR therapist if you are interested in pursuing this form of treatment. 

What can I do from here?

If you have made it this far, I hope you are leaving with a newfound sense of curiosity in EMDR! It is definitely a lot to take in and it may not be for everyone, but if you resonated with this information or feel interested in learning more, please check out the resources below and/or feel free to contact us! Healing is not linear and it is often a messy journey, but friends, it is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself! I would be incredibly honored to walk with you in your journey and support you in your healing. I see you, I believe in you, and I am rooting for you always!

EMDR Resources

Other Mental Health Services Offered in PA, NJ, DE, SC, and FL

We offer a wide variety of services related to eating disorder recovery including trauma therapy!  We offer Weekly Support Groups, Nutrition Services,  and Family and Parent Therapy as well as Coaching, all tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual. We offer our services for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating, and Orthorexia online in New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, and Florida! We are here to offer our support and understanding in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

We have immediate openings right now for eating disorder therapy in:

Delaware, New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

And recovery coaching worldwide.

Recovered and Restored is an eating disorder therapy center founded by Gabrielle Morreale. We specialize in helping teens and young women heal from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder and treat disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. We provide eating disorder therapy in the towns of Horsham, Upper Gwynedd, Lower Gwynedd, North Wales, Lansdale, Hatfield, Blue Bell, Doylestown, and nearby towns with eating disorder therapy. Also providing virtual eating disorder therapy in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida. Some towns served virtually but are not limited to Pittsburg, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Center City, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, Cape May, Avalon, Brick, Dover, New Castle, Bethany Beach, Marydel, and Oceanview


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