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Changing negative beliefs may help target eating disorder symptoms

Focusing on negative beliefs about oneself, rather than on eating, weight and shape, may offer a promising new intervention for eating disorders, according to a new study by the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London and the University of Oxford. 

The study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, examined the use of ‘Cognitive Bias Modification’ (CBM) in 88 women vulnerable to eating disorders.

CBM is a computer based intervention that trains participants to change their interpretations or evaluations of what happens in life and what things mean. 

In eating disorders, interest commonly focuses on eating, weight, and shape rather than on beliefs about oneself. In this study, researchers investigated the importance of negative self-beliefs in eating disorders by examining whether manipulating those beliefs would elicit symptom-relevant change. CBM is ideal for this purpose because it permits experimental manipulation of beliefs.

CBM is currently being developed for use as a treatment for depression, and has already been used as a treatment for some anxiety disorders, but this study is the first to demonstrate that CBM has an effect on symptoms of eating disorders.

CBM involves participants reading scenarios on a computer screen. They have to complete missing words and answer questions about each scenario in a way that encourages more adaptive beliefs about themselves.  After one session, participants displayed a range of effects, including significant change in target beliefs, eating disorder behaviours, related intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and depression, with some of the effects maintained at 1-week follow-up.

Dr Jenny Yiend, one of the lead authors on the study, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s said: “We found CBM changed the participants’ negative beliefs which in turn changed their behaviours and thoughts related to eating, weight and shape. Completing this training changed how the women thought and felt when they saw themselves in a mirror, weighed themselves and it changed how much they ate." 

Dr Myra Cooper a consultant clinical psychologist from the University of Oxford and second lead author on the study added: “It is early days, and this is not yet a fully developed therapy, but these results are promising. The next steps are to lengthen the intervention, and study its effects in a clinical population.” 

Paper reference: Yiend, J. et al. “Negative Self-Beliefs in Eating Disorders: A Cognitive-Bias-Modification Study” published in Clinical Psychological Science doi: 10.1177/2167702614528163

For further information,  please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, UK. +44 (0)207 848 5377 /