Mirror Exposure Therapy Reduces Body Dissatisfaction In Women With Bulimia

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New research from the University of Granada suggests two relatively new psychological treatments are effective in reducing body dissatisfaction and symptoms associated with body dissatisfaction in women with bulimia nervosa.

Source: Luaxan/DeviantArt

Source: Luaxan/DeviantArt

The study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry shows that both techniques, based in the controlled exposure to individual’s own body in a mirror, also reduce salivary cortisol levels. Salivary cortisol is a steroid hormone released in response to stress and is typically present in higher levels in people with eating disorders.

For the study, researchers compared two different techniques that use controlled exposure to one’s own body in the mirror to reduce the negative thoughts and feelings related to body image.

The first, guided exposure, asks participants to observe their bodies in the mirror while describing what they see in an objective manner. For example, they may describe their body as if an artist is drawing them without being able to see them.  The second, known as pure exposure, has participants observe their bodies in the mirror while expressing the thoughts and feelings this creates in them.

The study included 29 women with high body dissatisfaction and a clinical diagnosis of bulimia nervosa. The women were randomly placed in two treatment groups – one for each treatment method. All participants received six exposure sessions, and changes in their feelings were assessed and recorded. Body satisfaction levels and changes in salivary cortisol levels were also recorded.

While both techniques were shown to reduce negative thoughts in bulimic women while also increasing positive thoughts and cortisol levels over the course of treatment. However, pure exposure was shown to be significantly more effective in improving body satisfaction and reducing overall subjective discomfort with one’s own body.

Lead author of the paper, University of Granada researcher Sandra Diaz Ferrer says the findings suggest pure exposure “could be an effective therapeutic strategy for reducing body dissatisfaction in people with eating disorders and, in a preventive way, in women with high body dissatisfaction levels. Nevertheless, in the future, we should delve into the change mechanisms through which this technique is working.”

The researchers note body dissatisfaction is one of the largest factors in the development and maintaining of eating disorders.

“What alerts us the most is that we are facing high body dissatisfaction levels in women of all ages more often. That’s why it’s important to develop effective techniques for increasing body satisfaction and preventing the appearance of its most feared consequence: the eating disorders.”

Exposure therapy has been of increasing interest for researchers over the past few decades and is beginning to be seen as an effective method for the treatment of eating disorders.

“The general goal in this kind of technique is to expose people to the image of their own bodies in a mirror big enough to let them systematically examine every inch of their bodies within a time period and to let them learn how to manage negative thoughts and feelings in a more constructive way, without avoiding them,” Díaz Ferrer explains.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study is that techniques which allow individuals to express the negative thoughts and feelings they experience related to their body may be more effective than those which guide patients through more neutral descriptions.

“With this research, we don’t expect women to change their bodies, but to let them be able to accept them and to love them as they are. We should not let mirrors to be enemies in which we can only see what society tells us is beautiful. The mirror should be the mean to reflect the light that every person has, something that ignores fashion or beauty ideals”, Ferrer concludes.

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