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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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Emotion-focused therapy for eating disorders

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT), sometimes called emotionally-focused therapy, is a type of therapy that focuses on gaining and improving emotional awareness, regulation, acceptance, and expression in order to heal and facilitate powerful therapeutic change.

EFT is often used to treat eating disorders among other psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety.1

Last updated on 
November 1, 2023
Emotion-focused therapy for eating disorders
In this article

What is emotion-focused therapy (EFT)?

Emotional-focused therapy is a therapeutic approach that focuses on the role emotions play in psychotherapeutic change. It's designed to help patients develop more awareness and acceptance around their emotions, as well as facilitate expression, utilization, regulation, and the transformation of emotions.1

Essentially, EFT treats emotions, such as fear, sadness, and anger, not as "negative feelings" but as essential information about ourselves and our thoughts, behaviors, and perceptions. Therapists who use EFT are often viewed as emotion coaches who help people tune into and make sense of their emotional experiences.2,4

EFT is commonly used to treat many different types of mental health conditions, such as eating disorders, depression, social anxiety, and trauma.7

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How is emotion-focused therapy used to treat eating disorders?

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN), binge eating disorder (BED), and bulimia nervosa (BN) are frequently associated with severe emotional disturbances and fraught relationships with food, eating behaviors, and self-image.3 Emotion-focused therapy may be especially beneficial for those with eating disorders because it helps these patients deal with these emotions in a more positive and helpful way.

A core concept of EFT is that patients must experience and completely accept their painful emotions in order to access change—and many people with eating disorders try to avoid experiencing their emotions at all costs.

Learn about other common types of therapy used to treat eating disorders.

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Indeed, disordered eating behaviors are often thought of as unhelpful coping mechanisms for dealing with unpleasant thoughts and emotions.

But by utilizing the techniques taught in EFT, including methods like the emotional freedom technique, or "tapping," patients learn to identify and change emotional states. This is not only helpful on its own, but also gives patients a broader perspective of what they're experiencing, as opposed to solely focusing on disordered eating behaviors without offering alternative means for managing distress.4

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) techniques for eating disorders

Some specific strategies and tools eating disorder patients may learn and use during emotion-focused therapy include:

  • Emotional awareness worksheets and activities
  • Emotion-based exercises, such as drawing your feelings
  • Breaking harmful emotional cycles
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Compassionate self-soothing
  • Task reprocessing
  • Restructuring patterns of interaction
  • Empathy-based techniques

A central aspect of emotion-focused therapy is helping participants learn to differentiate when they should work to change unhelpful emotions, regulate overwhelming or stressful energy, or listen to their emotions as a guide.1 This can offer more cognitive balance and help patients better process their current situation and emotional state.

Once they can effectively sit with their emotions and determine when to use what skill, then they can begin to make a powerful and healing change.

What are the different types of emotion-focused therapy?

The three main types of emotion-focused therapy include:

Emotion-focused individual therapy
Emotion-focused family therapy
Emotion-focused couples therapy

Evaluating emotion-focused therapy as an effective eating disorder treatment

Like all types of therapy for eating disorders, emotion-focused therapy has its strengths and limitations, and what works for one patient may not be as effective for another. 

Emotion-focused therapy

What are the benefits of emotion-focused therapy?

Some strengths associated with emotion-focused therapy include:4

  • Improving emotional awareness and regulation
  • Improving coping mechanisms and well-being
  • Reducing mental health symptoms like disordered eating, depression, and anxiety
  • Improving impulse control
  • Increasing empathy
  • Strengthening relational bonds
  • Can be used in many different populations for a variety of issues and disorders
  • Can be used on an individual, couple, or family basis

What are the limitations of emotion-focused therapy?

There are some limitations to emotion-focused therapy, including:3,4,5

  • May not be helpful for those who aren’t open to change
  • Can’t treat all mental health disorders and symptoms like panic disorder
  • Shouldn’t be used for couples experiencing domestic violence or intimate partner violence
  • Shouldn’t be used for people experiencing psychosis or suicidality

Efficacy of emotion-focused therapy in healing eating disorders

Research indicates that EFT is an effective form of treatment in healing eating disorders. One study focusing on EFT and binge eating disorder found that this type of therapy decreased binge eating episodes and improved binge eating symptoms compared to those who didn’t receive this therapy.5

A systematic review of the effectiveness of emotion-focused therapy for eating disorders found that EFT leads to improvements in eating disorder pathology and affective, or mood-based, symptoms, like emotional distress. However, more research is needed to confirm its efficacy.6

Since eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s important to understand the EFT’s effectiveness in treating these conditions as well. Research indicates that emotion focused therapy is highly effective in treating depression, with similar effectiveness to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and client-centered empathic treatment.4 It has also shown promise in treating social anxiety and trauma.7

Moreover, emotion-focused therapy helps people resolve interpersonal issues, promote interpersonal forgiveness, and reduce overall relationship distress.4

Emotion-focused therapy at Within

At Within, our team provides evidence-based, innovative, and effective therapies, in programs designed to meet the specific needs of each of our clients. We offer emotion-focused therapy as part of our treatment plan for healing from eating disorders. Contact our team today for more information on the Within treatment program.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Greenberg, L. S. (2017). Introduction. Emotion-focused therapy. American Psychological Association.
  2. Greenberg, L. S. (2004, January 29). Emotion-focused therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 3-16. 
  3. Eating disorders. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed October 2023.
  4. Greenberg, L.S. (2010). Emotion-Focused Therapy: A Clinical Synthesis. Focus, 8(1). 
  5. Glisenti, K., Strodl, E., King, R., et al. (2021). The feasibility of emotion-focused therapy for binge-eating disorder: a pilot randomised wait-list control trial. Journal of Eating Disorders 9, 2.
  6. Osoro, A., Villalobos, D., & Tamayo, J. A. (2022). Efficacy of emotion-focused therapy in the treatment of eating disorders: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 29(3), 815–836. 
  7. Fülep, M., Pilárik, Ľubor, Novák, L., & Mikoška, P. (2021). The effectiveness of Emotion-Focused Therapy: A systematic review of experimental studies. Československá Psychologie, 65(5), 459-473.

FAQs

What is emotion-focused therapy?

Emotion-focused therapy is a therapy that aims to improve emotional awareness, regulation, and acceptance when treating conditions like eating disorders. 

How does emotional-focused therapy work?

Emotion-focused therapy centers on a patient’s emotions and emotional experience in order to facilitate therapeutic change. It helps them develop healthier coping mechanisms to manage unwanted, painful, or distressing emotions.

What is emotion-focused couples therapy?

Emotion-focused couples therapy focuses on the relationship, bond, and attachment of a couple to break rigid interaction patterns, improve emotional connection, and resolve relationship distress.

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