Exposure Therapy

Exposure Therapy for Eating Disorder Treatment

The renowned 20th-century psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” At its core, this is what exposure therapy aims to do. It aims to help us face our fears and anxieties, not to change what is causing our fears and anxieties, but rather to change how we react to them. This is also why exposure with response prevention (ERP) can be effective in the treatment of eating disorders.

However, exposure therapy is not as simple as “facing your fears.” If it were, there would be no need to have specialized exposure therapists. The key is to work closely with a professional to begin to address the situations, actions, or objects causing distress “little by slowly.” It is a delicate dance that can help an individual face their fears without being overwhelmed or evasive.

ERP can be a highly beneficial tool for treating individuals struggling with an eating disorder. However, it should not be the only tool. Creating a customized recovery plan based on individual needs can be crucial. If it includes the use of ERP, the potential for long-term recovery is certainly within reach.

What Is Exposure Therapy?

It can be nice to get a respected academic overview to get our bearings on what exposure therapy (also known as exposure with response prevention) is. According to the article “What Is Exposure Therapy?” by the American Psychological Association (APA). “Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities, or situations.” When this happens over time, it can create more severe forms of anxiety and serious disruptions to healthy daily living.

The APA further explains that in ERP, “psychologists create a safe environment in which to ‘expose’ individuals to the things they fear and avoid” and that this “exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance.” One of the key takeaways from this definition should be the emphasis on a “safe environment.”

ERP must be administered concisely and professionally, lest the potential for more harm than good is done. This is especially true for individuals that are struggling with trauma and trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Also, this is why choosing a recovery center that has a proven track record of effectively and safely administering ERP is critical. It is also worth reiterating that finding a recovery center that focuses on customized planning with multiple recovery options, including ERP, is optimal and highly recommended.

How Does Exposure Therapy Work for Treating Eating Disorders?

More and more studies are beginning to show the efficacy of exposure therapy for the treatment of eating disorders. Exposure therapy can help individuals develop new relationships with food and eating by eliminating or reducing the negative feelings that they have been associating with them. The response prevention part of ERP refers to making a choice not to do a compulsive behavior once the anxiety or obsessions have been “triggered.”

This is critical because eating disorders are rarely about the food but rather the emotions associated with them. Exposure therapy also helps an individual face the instances in which obsessing over calories and eating decisions has become detrimental. In doing so, they learn to slowly ease up on their negative behaviors. This is where the “response prevention” part of ERP comes in. The individual will learn to make positive choices. They will safely learn not to participate in compulsive and/or obsessive behaviors once their feelings of anxiety arise or are “triggered.” Ultimately, ERP is often utilized, with great success, in the treatment of anxiety disorders, many of which we know frequently co-occur with eating disorders.

It is also important to note that while ERP can be extremely helpful for certain individuals with eating disorders, for some that also have other co-occurring issues, ERP may not be ideal. As previously mentioned, this may include those that are struggling with a level of trauma in which ERP may push them out of their “safe zone.” ERP may also need to be adapted for certain populations, such as people that are neurodivergent. This is not unique; as with other mental health treatment modalities, ERP should be customized for everyone.

What Is the Importance of Long-Term Recovery?

One aspect of eating disorders that many people forget is that people need food to survive. What we mean by that is unlike other addiction disorders, individuals cannot simply abstain from the substance that is affecting them because that substance is the thing that they also need for sustenance: food.

For that reason, ERP can be all the more crucial for long-term recovery; there will always be the need to eat and engage with food. Exposure therapy can not only help that become a tolerable experience but an enjoyable one as well.

Dr. Frankl also once said that “A human being is a deciding being.” And that is what is vital. Even before ERP and a broader recovery plan can begin, an individual must decide for themself. Are they ready to get well and live the life that they deserve? Help is always available when the answer is yes.


Built on the principles of assertive community treatment, Galen Hope is an eating disorder and mental health treatment center offering individualized treatment options that include Intensive Outpatient (IOP), supported housing, and Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). As a “Community of Integrated Wellness,” we pride ourselves in fostering a thoughtful and meaningful care experience that can guide our clients on their road to recovery and increased quality of life, regardless of diagnosis. Galen Hope currently offers separate, age-specific programming for adolescents ages 12-17 and adults 18 and up of all genders. To learn more or to join our community for integrated wellness, please contact us today at (888) 592-1817.

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