Binge eating disorder (BED), although not as well-understood as other disorders like anorexia nervosa, is one of the most common eating disorder subtypes in the United States. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, BED is three times more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. Defined as a compulsion to engage in binge eating episodes in which the individual eats a large amount of food in a short time, often past the point of comfort, BED can be severely detrimental to their health.Binge eating disorder treatment usually involves multiple types of therapy, like group therapy and mindful meditation. One specifically useful type of treatment to help achieve binge eating disorder recovery is exposure therapy. 


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What Is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure therapy is a form of behavioral therapy that aims to inure people with anxiety or fears about a particular action or situation by putting them in controlled instances of that situation. Exposure therapy is commonly part of treatment for varying types of disorders relative to anxiety, such as phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

During exposure therapy, people have to “face their fears,” although it’s not as harsh as that might sound. For example, someone who has anxiety relative to snakes would be exposed to pictures of snakes, snakes behind glass at the zoo, or even a snake being held by another person. The principles behind daily exposure therapy make it logical for use in binge eating disorder treatment since BED is often anxiety-driven.

So How Does Exposure Therapy Work During Binge Eating Disorder Recovery?

Daily exposure can help people during binge eating disorder therapy because it addresses one of the more common causative factors behind binge eating disorder: anxiety. BED sufferers often have their binge eating episodes in private, and feel guilt or shame about their disordered behaviors. Through daily exposure therapy, people with BED can slowly and carefully get exposure to the things that they feel anxious about.

For example, someone who binged specifically on a certain type of food may be exposed to that food regularly in a controlled situation. They, with the help of a trained therapist, talk through what they were feeling throughout the exposure. Certain situations and actions are also addressed in this type of therapy – it can be used to help with other anxiety-driven behaviors, such as eating alone, practicing certain eating-related rituals, and more. 


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Self-Understanding and Graded Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy can be implemented using a variety of therapeutic techniques. One of those variations is graded exposure therapy. Graded exposure therapy requires the client to make a list of the things that cause anxiety from least frightening to most. Reviewing the list, the therapist will start with exposure to the things that would be easiest to work through according to the list the client made.

A typical list for a BED patient might include things like:

  1. Fear of eating in the presence of others. 
  2. Fear of foods that contain high-fat content. 
  3. Fear of not being able to stop eating when more food is present. 

During graded exposure therapy for BED in a binge eating disorder treatment setting, the therapist will start with the least feared item. In this case, they may have the client eat a small amount with the therapist present. Then they might move on to eating a full meal, then onto a group meal, and so on. Once the client is comfortable eating in the presence of others, the therapist will work on providing those triggering foods in with the meal. Each source of anxiety can be systematically addressed in this fashion.

Overall, exposure therapy can be a highly effective way to help people during binge eating disorder therapy. If you would like to know more about the different types of therapy used in binge eating disorder treatment programs, reach out to your doctor or an accredited eating disorder treatment center for more information.  

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