Study Examines New Approach to Treating Eating Disorders


The development of an eating disorder is believed by experts to have both a biological and an environmental component. The mix of the two influences may differ based on the individual, but there are certain factors that significantly increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder.

One of those predicting factors is the way a person sees themselves physically. If a person has a negative body image, they may ruminate on negative feelings about their appearance and go on to develop body image distortion. More seriously, the individual may eventually have body image dysmorphia, in which they struggle to see any reality in their image.

Such negative thoughts about appearance are not helped when a person has a preexisting tendency to see themselves with a negative bias. An article appearing in Psych Central discusses a study in which those negative attitudes are combated through therapy.

The strategy is new for a field in which eating habits and exercise behaviors have traditionally been the first items addressed in treatment. Those treated for eating disorders are often trained to focus on gaining weight and healthy eating choices.

Instead, the new treatment seeks to teach patients new ways to view themselves and their circumstances. Through what is called “Cognitive Bias Modification,” or CBM, the patients are taught to eliminate negative feelings about themselves. The research was conducted by scientists at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and the University of Oxford.

The 88 female participants were introduced to CBM through a computer-based program, which was designed to teach participants how to change their views on how things in life happen and the reasons behind events. The strategy has been used to treat some types of anxiety and depression. However, this study is the first to examine CBM for the treatment of eating disorders.

Lead author Jenny Yiend, Ph.D., of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, said that CBM was effective at changing the beliefs of the participants. This then changed their thoughts and behaviors and as they related to eating, healthy weights and body shape. The training impacted the amount the women ate and changed how they viewed themselves when they saw their reflections in a mirror.

For the CBM exercises, the patients were given scenarios on a computer screen. The participants were asked to fill in missing words or answer questions about the scenario, which invited them to alter their beliefs about themselves.

After only one session, the women reported a variety of responses, including significant impact in their eating disorder behaviors, target beliefs, thoughts and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some of these effects remained constant a week after the initial session.

Second lead author Myra Cooper, Ph.D., a consultant clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, notes that the findings are an early report of the effectiveness of this type of treatment. While promising, the strategy needs longer periods of testing and an examination of effects in a clinical population.

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