A newly developed intervention to help people understand and work with their emotions can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorder thoughts and behaviours.
Those are the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.
The intervention was created by a team of clinical psychologists and researchers at Bournemouth University working alongside people with lived experienced of an eating disorder. The team has now received funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to further develop it with patients waiting for treatment on the NHS.
“People with eating disorders, particularly those with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, have to wait a long time to receive treatment – sometimes years,” explained Dr Laura Renshaw-Vuillier, Principal Academic in Psychology at Bournemouth University, who led the study. “And the sad fact is that not everybody fully recovers after treatment, with studies finding that up to fifty or sixty percent will still have symptoms” she added.
Most current treatments mainly focus on helping a patient regain or maintain a healthy weight by eating more regularly and avoiding bingeing or purging the food they consume.
“That is really important, but it is not the whole story because it is addressing the symptoms rather than the reasons people are getting to that stage in the first place.” Dr Renshaw-Vuillier said.
This led to Dr Renshaw-Vuillier and her team to start developing a new approach to treatment that helped people with their emotions. Working alongside people who have experienced eating disorders, they developed a series of five videos and an accompanying booklet. The videos aim to normalise emotions and help people understand the role of emotions in eating disorders. They also provide help to better identify and manage difficult emotions.
Thirty-nine men and women with eating disorders took part in the pilot study. At the beginning they completed a questionnaire about their emotions, anxiety levels and eating disorder thoughts and behaviours amongst others. They then spent a week watching the videos and completing the exercises in the workbook before completing the questionnaire again.
The results showed a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression amongst the participants, many of whom also said that understanding their emotions had helped them reduce their eating disorder behaviours.
One female participant said, “I’m responding to my emotions in a more patient manner as well as not engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms the past week such as eating less or self-harming. I feel that I have found alternative ways to cope that actually feel just as effective and make far more sense.”
Another, male participant, said “It’s changed my life and helped me to heal. I have already found I am worrying much less. Sleeping much better. Getting on with things without and blocks of procrastination worry and lack of energy.”
“I did not expect the results to be as good as they were after just a week,” Dr Renshaw-Vuillier said. “To see such reductions in eating disorder behaviour, anxiety and depression was amazing. Whilst it was only a short trial period, we achieved a shift in thinking about emotions and helped to normalise them for the people taking part. There’s still a lot of work to be done, including further exploring the potential risks, but these preliminary results are very exciting” she added.
The new NHS trial will allow the researchers to further test and refine the video content based on feedback from patients and clinicians, and to consider how the programme could be implemented as a treatment plan in national healthcare systems.