Common Types of Therapy Involved in Eating Disorder Treatment

An effective treatment program for eating disorders usually involves a variety of treatment methods. While this may involve medication, most often a combination of talk therapy and cognitive retraining are the focal points. There are several specific types of therapies that can be used for treating eating disorders. 

They specific typos of therapy vary depending on the individual’s specific needs and goals as well as the severity and type of eating disorder. While the details will vary from client to client, some commonly used therapies make it into almost every program. The following are several types of the most prominent therapies used to treat eating disorders.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been proven useful in treating other forms of mental health illness such as addiction and depression and has become a central component of many ED recovery programs. CBT can be understood as a type of talk therapy that also serves as cognitive retraining. CBT helps individuals identify and challenge disordered thoughts and behaviors via objective self-reflection and help from a therapist. According to the American Psychological Association, there are several basic principles involved in CBT:

  • Unhelpful or negative thinking patterns are the cause of many disordered behaviors. Identifying and sharing the client’s thought patterns act as a first step to repairing the negative thoughts.
  • Negative thoughts and disordered emotions can influence patterns of negative behavior. It’s necessary to reshape ways of thinking that will eventually change behavior.
  • CBT gradually teaches a more objective way of thinking and allows clients to identify when their thought patterns and coping mechanism are disordered. This can lead to the successful treatment of everything from depression and anxiety to a variety of eating disorders.

There are several strategies CBT will use to help individuals change their thinking patterns and eventually their negative behavior. The most central one of these is embracing mindfulness, which allows them to step back from themselves and objectively identify their emotions. CBT therapy also helps individuals understand the motivation and behavior of other people.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is similar to CBT in that it involves identifying certain negative emotions, however, it is less focused on altering negative emotions. One of the key components of this type of therapy is for an individual to stop denying and avoiding their inner emotions. Individuals will learn that negative emotions are, at times, appropriate responses to some situations. The goal is for individuals to accept the difficulties and issues in their lives and then commit to making changes in their current behavior. According to Good Therapy, ACT involves a few major tenets:

  • Acceptance–Acknowledging unpleasant thoughts and experiences to exist without trying to deny or change them.
  • Being Present –Another term for mindfulness, this means being aware of emotions without trying to “do something” about them.
  • Self as Context – This means that a person exists outside the current experience; the self is a constant and the circumstances change.
  • Values – Individuals will try to codify and live by the values that are important to them.
  • Committed Action – The person will commit to living their values consistently.

Being able to relate to different events and ideas is a primary concept in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This type of therapy is useful in treating anxiety disorders as well as EDs like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

This type of therapy is a slightly altered form of CBT that puts its focus on dealing with difficult situations in a positive fashion. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) builds on the principles previously outlined CBT. DBT focuses on the ways one person’s emotions can be roused more quickly or intensely than another’s, and how to harness or allay the intense negative emotions. There are four specific areas of emphasis in DBT.

  • Mindfulness–As with all these treatments, mindfulness is key. St. Catherine University lists the tenet of mindfulness as purposeful observation, paced breathing, and self-soothing.
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness–Using a mindful approach can apply to person-to-person interactions as well as self-examination. DBT uses dialogue to increase interpersonal effectiveness.
  • Distress Tolerance – This method of coping teaches ways to tolerate rather than avoid stressful situations.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy differs from the other two categories of treatment in that it includes both individual and group therapy regularly. During group therapy, individuals will learn skills from one of the following methods: distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness skills, and emotion regulation. Group therapy is an ideal setting for putting these concepts into practice.


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