EMDR Themes and Eating Disorders

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (commonly known by its acronym, EMDR) is well-known for its use in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, but it can be used to treat a variety of other conditions as well. Part of what makes EMDR adaptive outside of trauma is the way it categorizes the problems that clients come in with. 

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably come into therapy saying something like, “I want to improve my relationship with food” or “I want to feel more confident in myself.” These are very valid issues to get professional help with, but EMDR takes these problems one step further. Instead of viewing these are the presenting problem, EMDR looks at these issues as symptoms of a greater problem, one that falls into at least one of three categories: 

  2. Responsibility/defectiveness
  3.  (“I am unlovable,” “I am not good enough,” “I am worthless” etc.)
  6. Safety/vulnerability
  7.  (“I am not safe,” “I cannot trust anyone” etc.) and 
  10. Power/choices
  11.  (“I am not in control,” “I am powerless,” “I can’t handle it” etc.).

This ideology cuts to the core of eating disorders. If we use the iceberg analogy, the eating disorder behaviors are above the waterline, the part of the iceberg that others can see. What’s underneath the waterline goes more toward the function of the eating disorder, factors that maintain it, and how it developed in the first place. These EMDR themes – responsibility/defectiveness, safety/vulnerability, and power/choices – are below the waterline of the iceberg and play a significant role in the development of and recovery from an eating disorder. Understanding how a client came to view themselves as unlovable is critical to being able to answer the question of how the future can be different. Reworking a client’s idea of empowerment, something antithetical to believing they are powerless, is necessary to view recovery-oriented choices as a way to gain control, rather than relinquishing it. 

By thinking about the eating disorder through the lens of these categories, ask yourself what the purpose of your eating disorder is and work with your therapist to understand how this belief came into fruition. You can use EMDR (if your therapist is trained in it) or you can explore your attachment style and relationship patterns, use narrative therapy to understand the themes in your life, or even create a timeline of events over the course of your life that feed into one of these themes. Understanding your eating disorder is the key to recovering from it, so be curious toward it, lean into the discomfort, and know that recovery will help you shift your views of yourself and the world so that you can be more present with your loved ones and your emotional experiences.