An examination of eating disorder fears in imaginal exposure scripts

J Affect Disord. 2023 Apr 1:326:163-167. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2023.01.121. Epub 2023 Feb 2.


Objective: Eating disorders (EDs) are maintained by fear and anxiety, which lead to disordered eating behaviors thought to prevent the occurrence of feared outcomes. Fear of weight gain and food are among the most common fears present in the EDs. However, theory and clinical observation suggest that the feared consequences of eating or weight gain are diverse and individualized. Further research is needed to delineate specific fears underlying ED pathology.

Method: 167 participants with any ED participated in an online four-session imaginal exposure intervention. Imaginal exposure scripts were rated by trained coders using items derived from the Eating Disorder Fear Interview to identify fears present. Frequencies of fears present in scripts were quantified.

Results: Two-thirds of scripts mentioned fears of food and weight or body-related fears. In over half of scripts, fear of judgment and fear of loss of control were identified. Diagnostic differences were found, including that those with anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN) had highest fears of food, whereas those with AN and other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED) had higher weight gain/body-focused fears.

Limitations: We were underpowered to make comparisons between ED diagnoses other than AN, BN, and OSFED.

Conclusions: Imaginal exposure scripts contained a large number of fears related to food, weight/shape, judgment, and loss of control, among others. These findings extend the current understanding of ED fears and provide evidence for the individualized and varied nature of fears. Identification of ED fears can further inform research on designing personalized, exposure-based treatment approaches.

Keywords: Eating disorders; Exposure therapy; Fear.

MeSH terms

  • Anorexia Nervosa* / diagnosis
  • Anorexia Nervosa* / therapy
  • Bulimia Nervosa* / therapy
  • Fear
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Weight Gain