A Jungian Approach to Treating Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses characterized by abnormal eating habits. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa affect millions of people around the world. Recent years have seen an alarming rise in the number of recorded cases of eating disorders: Incidence has doubled since the 1960s, and it is no longer unheard of for children as young as seven to develop an eating disorder.

There are various factors that are theorized to contribute to the development of eating disorders, from biological ( chemical imbalances in the brain) to intrapersonal (a history of being ridiculed because of weight or appearance). Psychological factors, such as low self-esteem, perceived lack of control in life, and depression can also increase the risk for developing an eating disorder.

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Societal pressure is another oft-cited reason as to why so many individuals are developing eating disorders.

Some Jungian analysts believe that food, in the context of eating disorders, may simply be symbols for something else: An uncontrollable craving for ice cream in an eating disorder patient might mean an unspoken yearning not for a cold dessert but for comfort and sweetness. Bingeing and purging may be viewed by the patient as a way to take control of her life.

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Symbols are central to Carl Jung’s work. Jungian analysts use symbols in a patient’s daily experience, as well as from his or her dreams, fantasies, and the like, to connect with the patient’s unconscious. Understanding the symbols in the patient’s life can help both the patient and the analyst gain a better understanding about the underlying causes of his or her condition.

Jungian analysis seeks to use the unconscious (and a patient’s past traumas and insecurities that may be hidden there), not just as a way to learn more about a patient’s condition, but as the source and catalyst of the patient’s healing.

Jungian analysis is a lengthy process that requires a trustful, healthy relationship between the patient and the analyst. For more on how Jungian analysis can help patients with eating disorders, subscribe to this Paul Gabrinetti blog.


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Paul Gabrinetti, Ph.D., is a core faculty professor in Clinical Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. With four decades of professional experience, he has been on various teaching or consultancy roles from a number of prestigious institutions, including the University of Southern California, Antioch University, Pepperdine University, Woodland Hills Psychiatric Medical Group, Wesval Counseling Center, and The Institute for Human Studies.

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