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Overview of Different Kinds of Psychotherapeutic Treatment of Eating Disorders

Written by: Gunborg Palme, certified psychologist and certified psychotherapist, teacher and tutor in psychotherapy.
First version: 22 Jul 2008. Latest version: 16 Aug 2008.


Describes and compares different psychotherapeutic methods, such as psychoanalysis, psychodynamic methods, gestalt methods, cognitive methods, behavioural methods, etc.


What methods are used for psychotherapy treatment of eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating?


The main cause of eating disorders may not be an unhappy childhood, but that a person's feelings and physical sensations are in a confusing jumble.

Prior to psychotherapeutic treatment it was not possible for patients to take responsibility for their inner life or manage it. If effective help is received, it will eventually be possible for patients to manage anxiety. The need to use excessive food or hunger as a drug , when one wants to diminish negative feelings, will then vanish. More.

Anxiety is a natural part of one's life which may be experienced and understood. These negative feelings can be an important source of information which may give possibilities for one's development.

Psychopharmacological medicine can often relieve eating disorders. Medicines like Prozac/Fontex are available in various forms and sometimes may increase the probability that psychotherapy will be successful.

Cognitive therapy: the patient learns to think effectively e.g. "I am normal and it is the photographer's models who are abnormally slim" instead of: "the photographer's models are perfect and I want to look like them. I must reduce my weight". More .

Behavioural therapy: one gets help from somebody, or from a computer, in order to understand and learn how to eat normally. One also gets tips about other things which can be done instead of eating. More .

Psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalysis: unpleasant and painful experiences, usually from childhood, are examined. The therapist helps patients to interpret their feelings.

A problem with treating eating disorders is that patients often have a strong tendency to be so influenced by those in their surroundings that they come away from their own feelings and wishes and just do what the therapist wants. They might accept interpretations which are not based on their own experiences. There is a risk that the patient learns to accept the therapists explanations and do not get in contact with his or her own feelings and physical signals, blaming childhood experiences instead of getting in contact with their own inner world.

Gestalt therapy: the main point of this method is for patients to learn to identify their real needs and feelings. More .

Family therapy: the whole family of a person with eating disorders often needs help in learning how to manage the problem. More .

Diet counseling: patients must learn to change their eating habits and only eat wholesome food, which makes it easier for them to recognize their real needs. They learn to avoid junk food which distorts this ability. Fat, sugar and white flour are out. More .

Group therapy: Patients discuss their problems in a group and the realization that others have similar needs may make it easier to understand their own problems. Members of the group help each other.

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