Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) Effects on Eating Disorders

While Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was initially created to treat individuals struggling with serious effects of borderline personality disorder such as chronic suicidality, the problem-solving approach of DBT has also shown promise among populations coping with other debilitating disorders.

DBT has proven especially effective in the area of prevalent eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Each of these disordered eating diagnoses constitutes a serious and often fatal illness that involves extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors relating to food and body image.

Although eating disorders most often develop during the teen years or in young adulthood, they can also appear later in life. Both genders are affected by disordered eating, but eating disorder rates are significantly higher among females.

Varying treatment plans have been administered in an effort to help individuals diagnosed with eating disorders achieve adequate nutrition and cease binging/purging behaviors. Frequently, these treatment plans include a blend of medical care, medication, nutritional counseling, and some type of psychotherapy.

Increasingly, DBT is one of the therapeutic approaches being used to address eating disorder diagnoses. By using a combination of skill sets including mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation, DBT helps patients to cope less pathologically with some of the difficult feelings that might provoke eating disorder symptoms.

In one of the most encouraging studies aimed at the efficacy of DBT for the treatment of binge eating disorder, results clearly highlighted the effectiveness DBT’s ability to reduce the negative behaviors associated with this diagnosis. In the study, 44 women were randomly assigned to a DBT group or wait-list control condition. Of the women treated with DBT, almost 90% completely halted their binge eating by the end of treatment. In addition, rates of abstinence from binge eating held at 56% at the 6-month follow up.

Another study focusing on women with bulimia nervosa demonstrated findings that were just as encouraging. After 20 weeks of DBT therapy concentrating on emotional regulation skills, participants receiving DBT treatment demonstrated a highly significant decrease in binge/purge behavior compared to those in the wait-list control group.

Finally, studies show that DBT can be successfully used to treat adolescents with eating disorders. In a 2015 pilot study , researchers set out to determine the effectiveness of pairing group DBT skills training with Maudsley-based family therapy as an outpatient treatment model for female adolescents with eating disorders. Once again, the findings were highly encouraging; not only did the participants who finished the pilot program gain a substantial amount of healthy weight, they also experienced a dramatic decrease in eating disorder psychopathology. Furthermore, 64% of the female adolescents maintained the added weight and were menstruating normally at the 1-year follow up.

The results of these studies offer hope and optimism for those seeking effective ways to treat specific eating disorders. From adolescents to adults, the research offers compelling evidence that validates the role of DBT in providing a useful, solution-oriented treatment. DBT management of eating disorders has been confirmed to be especially helpful during times of distress when the skills acquired can be employed immediately to manage emotional hurdles that lead to disordered eating symptomatology.