Dr. Sarah Ravin - Psychologist | Eating Disorders |Body Image Issues | Depression | Anxiety | Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders | Self-Injury
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Dr. Sarah Ravin

Welcome to my professional blog. I am a Florida Licensed Psychologist and trained scientist-practitioner. In 2008, I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. A major component of my professional identity is staying informed about recent developments in the field so that I may provide my clients with scientifically sound information and evidence-based treatment. There is a plethora of information on the internet about Eating Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, Psychotherapy. Unfortunately, much of this information is unsubstantiated and some of it is patently false. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and opinions on psychological issues, with scientific research and clinical experience sprinkled in for good measure, I can help to bridge the gap between research and treatment.

Weight Gain Predicts Psychological Improvement in Anorexia Nervosa

April 14th, 2014

A recent study published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy demonstrated that weight gain was a significant predictor of improved psychological functioning in adolescents undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN). In other words, adolescents who gained more weight during treatment did better mentally than those who gained less weight. This study also showed that weight gain early in the course of treatment had a greater impact on psychological recovery than weight gain later in the course of treatment.

This finding is extremely relevant not only to clinicians who treat adolescent AN, but also to the adolescent patients themselves and their families. The process of re-feeding and restoring weight often feels agonizing for patients and may cause tremendous stress to caregivers. Psychological recovery lags behind physical recovery, so patients often feel worse before they start to feel better. This study provides objective evidence that it is in the patient’s best interest – both physically and psychologically – to eat more and gain weight as soon as possible after diagnosis.

Weight gain is an essential component of treatment for patients with AN. The knowledge that full nutrition is necessary to repair the physical damage caused by AN – including weakened heart, low blood pressure, hypothermia, osteoporosis, stress fractures, lanugo, amenorrhea, infertility, and risk of premature death – helps many patients and families to persevere through the difficult days of re-feeding. Now, patients and families can hold onto hope that weight restoration will bring about psychological improvement as well. This study provides families with direct scientific evidence that gaining weight gives their loved one a greater chance of recovering mentally, emerging from the fog of depression, and reclaiming a meaningful life free from food and weight preoccupation.

Patients in this study were randomly assigned to receive either Family-Based Treatment (FBT) or Adolescent Focused Treatment (AFT). The authors of this study found that weight gain predicted psychological recovery regardless of the type of treatment (FBT vs. AFT) the patient received. This finding may be especially relevant to clinicians who treat adolescent AN using individual therapy. A common criticism of FBT (usually made by clinicians who reject FBT without really understanding it) is that it focuses on weight gain at the expense of the adolescent’s psychological wellbeing. This study clearly demonstrates that weight gain and improved psychological functioning are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, weight gain and improved psychological functioning are strongly correlated!

It is clear that FBT supports the adolescent’s psychological wellbeing indirectly by promoting regular nutrition and steady weight gain, which help to repair the brain damage caused by malnutrition. I would also argue that FBT has a direct impact on the adolescent’s psychological wellbeing by externalizing the illness, removing any sense of self-blame the adolescent may have, supporting her emotionally, and relieving her of the burden of fighting this deadly illness alone.

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Exercise Caution: Physical Activity and Eating Disorder Recovery

February 20th, 2014

Compulsive exercise is often a symptom of eating disorders. It is common for a child who is developing an eating disorder to take a sudden interest in running and other vigorous forms of exercise. Given that exercise is a symptom which is directly related to the energy imbalance that triggers and maintains a restrictive eating disorder, it is important for clinicians and caregivers to monitor and manage patients’ exercise during treatment and recovery.

When a patient has an active eating disorder, it is generally ineffective to use exercise or sports as an “incentive” to get him to eat more or gain weight. Even the patient who absolutely loves soccer, and says he would do anything to keep playing, probably won’t be able to eat enough to make that happen. The malnourished anorexic brain is just not capable of overriding symptoms, no matter how alluring the reward may be.

For people with eating disorders, exercise poses numerous medical risks including stress fractures, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, and heart arrhythmia. Further, exercise can be counterproductive to treatment goals when a patient needs to restore weight. For these reasons, I recommend that patients with Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa abstain from all physical activity until they meet the following criteria:

a.) Complete weight restoration
b.) Complete abstinence from binge/purge behaviors for at least two weeks
c.) Consistently eating complete, balanced meals with little resistance
d.) Sufficient hydration
e.) Willingness and ability to increase nutrition and hydration to compensate for activity
f.) Medically cleared to exercise by physician

Explaining the dangers of exercise to the eating disordered patient is important but rarely sufficient to curb the compulsion. Patients with exercise compulsion need an authoritative source to tell them directly, in no uncertain terms, that all exercise must be stopped until the above criteria are met. In my practice, the hiatus from exercise typically lasts for several months, but this varies widely based upon the patient’s severity of illness and response to treatment.

Abstaining from all physical activity means stopping sports, dance classes, martial arts, and any other extracurricular activity that involves movement. It also means no PE at school, no bike riding, no home workouts, no yoga, and no long-distance walking.

Parents can do a number of things to help prevent their ill child from exercising. They can obtain a doctor’s note to except him from PE class, they can call the coach to inform him that the child will not be able to play for the rest of the season, they can give him a break from his usual chore of walking the dog.

When the exercise compulsion is strong, more serious measures must be taken. Some parents may need to get rid of home exercise equipment, terminate their child’s gym membership, or hide her running shoes. Parents must be extremely vigilant in protecting their child from secretly exercising.

Any time spent behind closed doors presents an opportunity for the patient to succumb to the exercise compulsion. It is not unusual for anorexic patients to exercise in the middle of the night, to sneak out of the house to go running, or to do calisthenics on the bathroom floor. Sometimes it is necessary for parents to sleep in the same room with their child and provide round-the-clock supervision for weeks or months at a time in order to break the exercise compulsion.

Full nutrition and weight restoration often help tremendously in lessening the compulsion to exercise. Many recovering kids will lose interest in exercise once the compulsion has faded. These are often the kids who first began exercising in the context of their eating disorder, but never really enjoyed their activity. Once recovered, these kids will often return to lives that are not particularly active, and decide to pursue other interests instead, such as music, art, or a very busy social life.

For some children, exercise has been a part of their lives since they were very young, but took on a new intensity when the eating disorder arrived. For example, a 12-year-old girl who loves to dance and has taken ballet since preschool may suddenly start taking eight dance classes a week instead of her usual four. As another example, a teenage basketball player may begin rising at 4:00 AM to go jogging in addition to afternoon practices with his team. These kids suffer tremendously as the activities they love become tools for their eating disorder to use against them.

In my experience, these patients are often able to return to the sports and activities they previously enjoyed without compromising their recovery, so long as they are physically and mentally ready to do so, and so long as their activity is monitored and limited. The young dancer described above may return to her studio, once weight-restored and back in school, for three or four classes per week. The recovering teenage basketball player may be permitted to practice with his team, but would not be allowed to exercise outside of scheduled practices.

While it’s rarely effective to use sports as an incentive for a sick patient to get well, sports can be a great incentive for a recovered patient to stay well. Many patients, once physically and psychologically recovered, feel motivated to do whatever it takes to maintain their exciting new life. I have found that exercise contracts work well for these patients.

For example, my former patient, whom I will call Andy, played on a competitive year-round traveling soccer team. When Andy developed Anorexia Nervosa at age 14, his parents and I agreed that he would need to take five months off from soccer to restore his weight and focus on his recovery. Once he was feeling better, Andy became excited to rejoin his team.

Andy’s family and I supported his return to soccer so long as it did not interfere with his recovery. We developed a written contract which stated that Andy may participate in club soccer so long as he maintained his weight, ate all of his meals and snacks, drank 8 glasses of water per day, abstained from exercise outside of team practices, and attended monthly therapy sessions. We also agreed that he would drink a smoothie after each soccer practice and that one of his parents would travel with him to all tournaments to ensure that he ate enough to fuel his activity.

Certain solo long-distance endurance activities, such as cross country running and competitive swimming, pose particular risks for patients predisposed to eating disorders. This is in part due to their very high energy requirements, in part due to their solitary nature, and in part due to the extreme rigor of the activity which demands a high level of dedication. Not only do these factors attract young people who are competitive, driven, and dedicated (read: predisposed to eating disorders); they also create the perfect formula for triggering and perpetuating an eating disorder.

If a recovered person who had been a runner or a swimmer prior to getting sick expresses a desire to return to athletics, it may be preferable for him to choose a different sport. Team sports such as volleyball or basketball may be more conducive to sustained remission.

Activities with an artistic or aesthetic element, such as gymnastics, dance, figure skating, and diving, can pose a risk for those in recovery from eating disorders, particularly if body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness were major symptoms of the patient’s illness. If a former dancer/gymnast/athlete wishes to return to these activities, certain factors must be considered. In addition to the criteria for resuming exercise that I listed above, these young people should attain a certain level of body acceptance prior to returning to their activity. They need to feel at least somewhat comfortable in a leotard, and they must be strong enough to challenge or ignore any negative body thoughts that may arise. If a young person experiences a noticeable increase in eating disordered thoughts or behaviors upon returning to her activity, this is an indication that she likely needs more time off to recover before she can safely return.

It is important for dancers and athletes to return to a nurturing environment that does not encourage food restriction, weight loss, or winning at all costs. It is helpful for parents to speak with coaches and trainers to alert them of their child’s vulnerability and ensure that the atmosphere is conducive to health and well-being. There are dance teachers and coaches who encourage full nutrition, healthy body image, self-care, and a balanced approach to life. These adults can be positive forces in helping a young dancer or athlete sustain remission.

It is of utmost importance that family members and treatment professionals convey, through their words and their actions, that the patient’s physical and mental health are the number one priority. Participation in activities that jeopardize health or fuel emotional distress should be avoided. Participation in activities that bring joy and enhance well-being should be encouraged.

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Exercise and Eating Disorders: It’s Not What You Think

February 9th, 2014

Exercise very often plays a role in the development of restrictive eating disorders, particularly Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Some people view exercise as “a form of purging” or “a way to get rid of calories.” These explanations seem to make sense in light of modern western society’s views on exercise, similar to the theory that people with AN restrict their calories in order to conform to society’s thin ideal. But like the thin ideal theory, the “exercise purging” theory is an erroneous attempt to make sense of a puzzling symptom in the context of modern society.

In AN, excessive exercise, just like food restriction, is a biologically-based symptom, driven by something beyond conscious control or awareness. Patients do not exercise “to burn calories,” although they may insist that burning calories is their motivation. Consider, for example, the fact that even patients who know they are too thin are motivated to gain weight (yes, such patients do exist), often cannot stop themselves from moving unless they are forced to do so. Young children with AN are especially susceptible to the drive to exercise even though they have no idea what calories are or how to burn them.

A little history may help to put this into context. People did not really exercise for the purposes of physical fitness and attractiveness prior to the “exercise boom” of the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, hyperactivity was a symptom of AN long before Jane Fonda’s exercise videos found their way into American living rooms.

The nineteenth-century British Physician William Gull, the first clinician to describe AN medically, was surprised by the seemingly boundless energy that his anorexic patients possessed despite their emaciated state. In his 1874 paper entitled Anorexia Nerovsa, he wrote the following description of a young anorexic girl: “The patient complained of no pain, but was restless and active…it seemed hardly possible that a body so wasted could undergo the exercise which seemed agreeable.” Clearly, this young woman was not motivated by the pursuit of a thinner body, as the idea of exercising to “burn calories” would not emerge until a century later.

Animal research has shown that the hyperactivity commonly associated with AN is rooted in neurobiology and may serve an adaptive evolutionary purpose. For example, activity-based anorexia can be experimentally induced in rats which, like humans, evolved as opportunistic omnivorous foragers. When food-deprived lab rats are given free access to a running wheel, they become hyperactive, lose large amounts of weight, and will often die unless they are removed from these experimental conditions. I highly doubt that these rats were running excessively to purge calories, ward off obesity, or pursue some unrealistic standard of rodent beauty.

So why would AN, which leads to numerous health problems, infertility, and death, remain in our gene pool for tens of thousands of years? Shan Gusinger, an evolutionary biologist and a psychologist, posits that AN has evolved in humans as a means of helping us flee from food-depleted environments. The restless energy, grandiosity, and lack of awareness of one’s starved body allowed prehistoric anorexics to lead their tribes in migrations from food-depleted areas to plentiful ones.

Once the anorexic leader and her tribe arrived in a plentiful environment, the tribe feasted, pressuring the anorexic leader to indulge in food with them. In the absence of modern society’s thin ideal and without our modern obesity hysteria, prehistoric anorexics may have been able to allow their families to feed them, restoring their health and fertility. Even if the anorexic herself died of her condition or was rendered infertile, her close genetic relatives survived and reproduced, thus ensuring the continuity of AN into the next generation.

In our modern world, where children are encouraged to exercise more and make “healthy” (e.g. lower calorie) food choices as early as kindergarten, it is no wonder that AN is still around. During the pre-teen years, when rapid vertical growth and pubertal development demand extra energy, girls and boys are hit hard with the social pressures to be thin (for girls) or lean and ripped (for boys). The rapid weight gain that is necessary for growth and development is feared and despised in these growing children (and often, sadly, in their parents and pediatricians).

Adding add fuel to the fire, the pre-teen years are when intense and time-consuming athletic training begins. Competitive sports provide socially-applauded outlets for the young anorexic’s hyperactivity. No one bats an eye at the 12-year-old dancer who spends hours each evening at her studio in preparation for her next audition, or the 11-year-old boy who plays multiple back-to-back games each weekend with his elite travelling soccer team. Meanwhile, these children are making “healthy food choices,” consuming too few calories and fats to keep up with normal growth, let alone intense daily exercise.

In these vulnerable children, their vertical growth is stunted, their pubertal development is halted, and their intense athletic drive is praised by adults. And before you know it, they have fallen down the rabbit hole and developed full-blown AN. In this way, hyperactivity serves as both a precipitating factor and a perpetuating factor in the development of AN.

In my next post, I will discuss the role of exercise in eating disorder recovery.

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Let’s Get Physical: Exercise in the Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders

February 6th, 2014

As the Olympic Winter Games are commencing tomorrow in Sochi, I feel inspired to write about the role of physical activity in mental health. This post will focus specifically on exercise in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise improves mood in people with mild to moderate depression. For those with severe depression or bipolar disorder, exercise alone is rarely sufficient, but exercise can play an adjunct role in helping patients recover and prevent relapse.

We know from Newton’s law of motion that an object at rest stays at rest unless a force acts upon it, and an object in motion stays in motion unless some force makes it stop. The same is true for human bodies. Paradoxically, sedentary people tend to have less energy and active people tend to have more.

Now, of course this begs the question of the chicken or the egg – it is likely that people become sedentary because they have little energy or stay active because they have a surplus. This is true. People seem to have “set points” for activity level just as they do for weight and mood. That being said, physical activity has an almost immediate effect on mood and energy level. Over time, consistent exercise helps to stabilize moods, improve sleep, reduce stress, and enhance motivation to continue moving.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage my patients who suffer from mood disorders or anxiety disorders to exercise regularly. In my opinion, exercise is every bit as important as therapy, medication, and sleep when it comes to mood and anxiety disorders.

As I have emphasized in previous posts, the mind is a series of conscious functions carried out by the brain, and the brain is part of the body. Physical health and mental health are one in the same. Despite what society, popular wisdom, and health insurance companies may tell us, there is no actual difference between a physical illness and a mental one. When you exercise your body, you are exercising your brain.

Unlike therapy or medication, exercise is cheap or even free. Unlike medication, which can have unpleasant or dangerous side effects, exercise is generally safe so long as you do it sensibly and moderately. Unlike therapy, which requires another person and an appointment, exercise can be done alone if you choose at a time that suits your schedule. Unlike therapy, which is typically one-on-one and indoors, exercise can be enjoyed inside or outside with your family, friends, classmates, or teammates.

Numerous times, I have been amazed at how much exercise improves my patients’ mental health. This is especially true for people who have historically been sedentary and embark on a new exercise routine as part of their treatment plan. For example, I am working with a 15-year-old girl whom I’ll call Elsa who suffered from severe depression and crippling anxiety. When I met Elsa last year, she hated exercise and barely had the energy to get out of bed. After months of encouraging her to try different enjoyable physical activities, she finally started biking with her mom and jogging with her neighbor. She is now in full remission from her depression, making excellent progress in tackling her anxiety, and training for her first 5K. She now wakes up at 7:00 am with plenty of energy and really enjoys exercising. I am so proud of her.

One of the more challenging aspects of incorporating exercise into a patient’s treatment plan is that sometimes the mental illness itself is part of the reason why the patient is inactive. Depressed people tend to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They feel unmotivated and chronically exhausted. Clearly, it is a challenge for them to do essential things like get dressed and go to school, let alone something “extra” and “optional” like exercise.

For these patients, I use a behavioral technique called behavioral activation. Here’s how it works: we agree upon a small, realistic exercise goal such as walking for 10 minutes three evenings a week. [Elsa’s initial idea was to do the Insanity DVDs she saw on an infomercial. Given that she hadn’t exercised in years, I told her that this idea was, frankly, insane, and I suggested something more moderate.] I have the patient choose an activity they enjoy (or at least one that they don’t hate) and a time of day when they’re likely to follow through (for example, not at 5:00 AM if they aren’t a morning person).

When possible and feasible, I encourage patients to exercise socially by attending a class, joining a sports team, taking lessons, or doing something active outdoors with their families. We make this activity part of their weekly schedule, writing it down (or, often, putting it in their smart phone) as if it were any other appointment or commitment. Most of the time, the patient achieves their initial goal because it is small, realistic, specific, and planned.

Achieving this initial exercise goal creates a feeling of success and personal satisfaction and enhances the person’s motivation to keep going. In addition, they experience a bit of a mood boost from the activity itself. Once the patient achieves the initial exercise goal, it is increased a little bit in frequency or duration.

Using the example above, the patient may walk for 20 minutes during the second week and 30 minutes during the third week. This gradual increase in frequency and duration continues for a number of weeks or months. Eventually, the patient has incorporated regular exercise into her lifestyle. The stress reduction, mood enhancement, and improvement in fitness level enhance her internal motivation to continue exercising.

Anxiety can also interfere with a patient’s plans to exercise. Many people who experience panic attacks are afraid of the physical sensations that result from exercise (rapid breathing, increased heartbeat, sweating), which closely resemble those of a panic attack.

Patients who have social anxiety may shy away from joining sports teams, taking dance classes, or going to gyms because they worry about being judged or making a fool of themselves. For example, Elsa had enjoyed dance classes and swimming in elementary school but later became socially anxious and self-conscious about wearing a leotard or swimsuit in front of her peers. For this reason, she chose to do biking and jogging which did not require such revealing attire. And now, for the record, Elsa does wear a swimsuit with only mild anxiety when she goes to the beach or the pool with her friends. Did I mention how proud of her I am?

For patients with eating disorders, exercise is altogether a different story. That will be the topic of my next blog post.

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Effective Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa: A Good Start

January 29th, 2014

A randomized controlled trial recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-E) was far more effective than psychoanalytic therapy in the treatment of Bulimia Nervosa (BN).

In this study, 70 adults with BN were randomly assigned to either the CBT-E group or the psychoanalytic therapy group. Those in the CBT-E group received 20 sessions over the course of 5 months, whereas those in the psychoanalytic therapy group received weekly sessions for 2 years.

CBT-E for bulimia nervosa directly targets bulimic symptoms of dietary restriction, binge eating, and purging by modifying self-defeating behaviors, identifying and challenging distorted thoughts and beliefs about food, body shape, and weight, and learning skills to regulate moods and deal with setbacks. For example, patients learn to moderate their food intake by consuming regular, satisfying meals and snacks throughout the day rather than fasting, which often leads to nighttime binges.

In contrast, psychoanalytic therapy helps patients work through emotions and resolve inner conflicts which are believed to be at the root of their eating disorder.

After five months of treatment, 42% of patients receiving CBT-E had stopped bingeing and purging, compared to only 6% of patients in the psychoanalytic therapy group. After two years, 44% of patients in the CBT-E group had remained abstinent from bingeing and purging, compared to 15% of patients in the psychoanalytic group. It is important to note that the 2-year assessment represents a 19-month post-treatment follow-up for patients in the CBT-E group, but an end-of-treatment assessment for the psychoanalytic therapy group. Thus, patients in the CBT-E group had maintained their remission 19 months after treatment ended.

I draw the following conclusions from this study:

1.) Treatments which directly target bulimic symptoms are likely to be much more effective than treatments that deal with underlying emotions and psychic conflicts.

2.) Bulimic patients who receive CBT-E experience symptom relief much more quickly than those who receive psychoanalytic therapy.

3.) CBT-E is more efficient and cost-effective. If a psychologist charges $150 per hour, twenty sessions of CBT-E over the course of 5 months would cost a total of $3000. Weekly psychoanalytic sessions for two years would cost a total of $15,600.

4.) The benefits of CBT-E are long-lasting for those who recover

5.) Psychoanalytic therapy can be effective for a small fraction of bulimic patients

6.) CBT-E should be a front-line treatment for bulimia nervosa because, statistically, patients are much more likely to benefit from it than from other treatment approaches.

Bulimia nervosa wreaks havoc on the brain as well as the rest of the body. Insufficient or erratic nutrition caused by restrictive dieting, fasting, bingeing, laxative abuse, purging, and dehydration have a direct and immediate impact on brain function. I suspect that a primary reason for the superiority of CBT-E is that it targets the symptoms of dieting, bingeing, and purging immediately, thereby helping patients achieve medical stability and brain healing. When a person is receiving consistent balanced nutrition and keeping it down, he or she is better able to process emotions, refrain from impulsive behaviors, and do the hard work that is necessary for full recovery.

Perhaps patients in the psychoanalytic therapy group did not have the tools necessary to recover. It is one thing to gain insight into one’s emotions and beliefs; it is another thing entirely to halt a destructive and addictive cycle of restricting, bingeing, and purging.

The authors of this study conclude that it “provides one of the clearest examples of the superiority of one well-implemented psychological treatment over another.” However, CBT-E is not a magic bullet: more than half of the patients who received CBT-E did not recover. Therefore, we need to improve existing treatments for BN and develop new, more effective treatments for this devastating illness.

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Expanding Our Minds: Towards a Biologically-Based Understanding of Eating Disorders

January 18th, 2014

I read the abstract of a recently published journal article which illustrates one of the major problems in the field of mental health treatment in general, and eating disorder treatment in particular. The article, authored by Jim Harris and Ashton Steele and published in the latest issue of Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention is provocatively titled Have We Lost Our Minds? The Siren Song of Reductionism in Eating Disorder Research and Theory.

The authors state that, over the past decade, “the focus of eating disorder research has shifted from the mind to the brain.” I disagree with this assertion on two levels. First, the statement implies that the mind and the brain are separate entities. They are not. The “mind” is simply a range of conscious functions which are carried out by the brain: for example, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, intentions, motivations, and behaviors. These mental functions originate in the brain, are executed in the brain, and are interpreted by the brain.

Indeed, recent developments in genetics and neuroimaging techniques have allowed scientists to study the structure, function, and circuitry of the brain in far greater detail than was possible before. Researchers have utilized this new technology to generate and test novel hypothesis about the biological underpinnings of eating disorders. The results of these studies have indicated that eating disorders are genetically inherited, biologically-based brain disorders, similar to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

However, while research in the area of genetics and neuroimaging has proliferated in the eating disorders field, there has been no shortage of research on psychosocial factors or non-medical treatments for eating disorders, such as FBT and DBT. Contrary to Harris and Steele’s assertion, we have not “lost our minds.” We’ve simply expanded our minds and deepened our realm of investigation to study the biological underpinnings of mental functions as new technology has allowed us to do so.

Harris and Steele assert that the brain disorder model of eating disorders necessitates that treatment targets the underlying neurobiological abnormality; namely, medication. The authors then conclude that the brain disorder model of eating disorders is misguided because no pharmacological intervention has been shown to significantly benefit patients with anorexia nervosa.

This simplistic assumption and its corollary reflect a lack of basic understanding of the relationship between the brain and the symptoms of psychiatric illness. The authors fail to recognize the fact that certain non-medical interventions HAVE been consistently shown to benefit patients with biologically-based brain illnesses.

For example, it is widely accepted amongst medical and psychological professionals, as well as the general public, that autism is a biologically-based brain illness. There are no medications which have shown to consistently benefit children with autism. The gold-standard of treatment for autism is early intervention with applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is a form of behavior therapy focused on skills building, parent training, and modifying environmental contingencies. Most children with autism do extremely well with this type of treatment, and many of them can be mainstreamed in classrooms with typically developing children.

Sound familiar? It should, because that is precisely what is happening in the world of eating disorder treatment. The treatment approaches which have shown the most promise in the world of eating disorders are psychological and behavioral treatments such as Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for anorexia nervosa and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for bulimia nervosa.

There are a number of misconceptions about these types of treatments. For example, many people believe that FBT is merely re-feeding. This is not so. FBT is a psychological and behavioral treatment – a form of psychotherapy – and parental control of re-feeding is but one component of the first phase of this three-phase treatment model.

As another example, some people believe that CBT and DBT are merely “learning skills.” Again, this is a misconception. CBT and DBT are forms of psychotherapy which involve a relationship with a therapist who instills hope, provides support and feedback and accountability, promotes awareness of thoughts and feelings, and teaches adaptive skills for managing life’s challenges.

Contrary to popular belief, psychotherapy does not consist of lying on a couch and talking about your mother. That myth stems from psychoanalysis, an antiquated form of treatment commonly practiced in the mid-20th century which has no evidence base. Modern evidence-based psychotherapy is entirely different: it is active, directive, and believe it or not, effective.

I get a bit irritated when uninformed people make sweeping generalizations on either side of the fence, such as “psychotherapy doesn’t work for eating disorders,” or, on the flip side, “psychotherapy is the best way to treat eating disorders.” The truth is more specific: evidence-based psychotherapies are effective in the treatment of eating disorders.

From my perspective, focusing on the biological basis of psychiatric illnesses does NOT mean:

• That the illness can only be treated with a pill
• That psychological and social factors are irrelevant
• That environment doesn’t matter
• That the patient can’t do anything about it
• That the psychologist’s job is obsolete

Focusing on the biological basis of eating disorders DOES mean:

• That eating disorders are illnesses, no different from cancer or diabetes or schizophrenia
• That patients do not, and in fact cannot, choose to develop eating disorders
• That eating disorders are not caused by family dynamics or social pressures
• That prevention efforts aimed at improving body image are unlikely to be effective
• That a person must have a certain genetic predisposition in order to get an eating disorder
• That biological relatives of eating disorder patients are at risk for developing the disorder themselves
• That medication can be helpful, though not curative, in some cases
• That full nutritional restoration, and thereby correcting the brain-based symptoms of starvation, is a necessary first step in treatment
• That psychotherapy focused on resolving underlying issues or gaining insight into the origins of one’s illness is unlikely to be effective in resolving eating disorder symptoms
• That behaviorally-based psychological treatments focused on symptom management and skills building can be very effective, in large part because they change the brain
• That last century’s theories about the causes of eating disorders are inaccurate

I wish that Harris and Steele, and all professionals involved researching or treating eating disorders, could grasp these points. If the general population had this basic understanding of eating disorders, then patients and their families would be viewed with compassion and understanding rather than judgment or smug clichés (e.g. “she needs to learn to love herself;” “it’s all about control”).

The past decade represents a monumental shift in the way expert clinicians view eating disorders. In fact, it will be 10 years ago this fall that I saw my very first eating disorder patient. As a bright-eyed graduate student hungry for hands-on clinical experience, I chose a training rotation at an adolescent eating disorders clinic. On my first day at the clinic, not much older or wiser than the teenagers I was about to start treating, I was introduced to “the Maudsley Approach,” a promising new treatment method from the UK. And the rest, as they say, was history.

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Sleep and Mood Disorders: Implications for Mental Health Care

December 11th, 2013

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone. Well-rested bodies and brains are healthier, more resilient, and more energetic. For those with depression and other mood disorders, getting plenty of sleep must be a priority. In fact, research has demonstrated that people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression than those who get sufficient sleep. Further, new research has shown that sleep disturbances can trigger psychiatric illnesses in those who are vulnerable.

Sleep is every bit as important as medication and therapy in the treatment of mood disorders. For this reason, I make a point of discussing and monitoring sleep patterns with my patients, and I integrate sleep hygiene into their treatment plans.

A recent study financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in The New York Times found that a psychological treatment called CBT-I (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) doubled the effectiveness of antidepressant medication in the treatment of depression.

This was not surprising to me. I was trained in CBT in graduate school and I have seen cognitive-behavioral techniques work wonders in many of my patients. But the implications of this study, and the fact that the results have made it into the popular media, are quite significant.

One of the most disturbing and unfortunate trends in mental health care in recent years has been the overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underuse of behavioral and psychological interventions. This trend is especially bothersome to me because I am keenly aware – thanks to my training and experience as a psychologist – that certain evidence-based psychological treatments are as effective, if not more effective, than medication for treating certain illnesses.

Unfortunately, most people outside the field of psychology don’t know this. Americans are bombarded daily with advertisements for psychotropic medication on television, online, and in print. It’s only natural, then, that consumers who are suffering from depression or anxiety would request medications from their doctors, even when they have a problem that can be successfully treated by other means.

Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means anti-medication. I am thankful that we have effective, relatively safe medications on the market now that can help people effectively manage serious illnesses which were once disabling. Indeed, psychotropic medication can be extremely helpful – even life-saving – for many people. My concern is that psychotropic medications are prescribed too frequently to people who may not need them, often without the necessary monitoring, and often without the corresponding psychological and behavioral interventions that have been proven effective.

As a psychologist who practices said psychological and behavioral interventions, rather than a psychiatrist who prescribes said medications, am I biased? Well, obviously. I believe in what I do and I chose this profession for a reason. But still.

My hope is that, with articles such as this one, the general public will learn that evidence-based psychological treatments exist which can reduce their suffering and improve their quality of life. I would like people to be fully informed about their options when it comes to mental health treatment. I look forward to the day when people experiencing psychiatric symptoms routinely ask their primary care physicians for referrals to psychologists who practice evidence-based treatments, rather than, or in addition to, asking for prescriptions.

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Giving Thanks

November 21st, 2013

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I am faced daily with stories of tragedy, trauma, illness, conflict, and loss. Each therapy session is a window into private suffering.

“Isn’t it hard?” people ask me. “Isn’t it awful to listen to people’s problems all day long? Doesn’t it make you depressed?” My answers to these questions are: “Yes,” “No,” and “Quite the opposite.” It is painful to witness people suffering, but it is endlessly rewarding to help them triumph.

Rather than letting other people’s pain drag me down, I feel honored that they have shared it with me and privileged that I am in a position to help them cope with it. I am intimately aware of the obstacles people face – and overcome – every single day. Being a clinical psychologist provides me with daily opportunities to participate in stories of healing, strength, opportunity, resolution, and empowerment.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans begin to think about expressing gratitude for the things we take for granted the rest of the year. Consider these:

If you get out of bed next Thursday, give thanks.
There are those with depression who cannot do so without herculean effort.

If you are preparing to host relatives in your home, give thanks.
There are those with crippling social anxiety for whom a house full of guests would be unthinkable.

If you are planning to travel across several time zones to spend the holiday with relatives, give thanks.
There are those with mood disorders for whom jet lag can trigger an episode of mania or depression.

If you are looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, give thanks.
There are those with anorexia nervosa for whom a holiday feast is an object of fear, loathing, and guilt.

If you set the table next Thursday in under five minutes, give thanks.
There are those with OCD who cannot relax unless every napkin, fork, and knife is lined up precisely.

If you sit on the couch after dinner to watch football with your uncles and cousins, give thanks.
There are those with bulimia nervosa who will be pacing around the house, waiting for an opportunity to purge unnoticed.

If you settle into bed with a good book later that evening, give thanks.
There are those who will be cutting their forearms with a razor to numb themselves from the intolerable emotions triggered by the day’s events.

If you go to bed Thanksgiving night satiated and content, give thanks.
There are those whose restless worry keeps them up until sunrise.

If you have never even considered feeling grateful for these ordinary things, give thanks.
Our mental health, and that of our family, should not be taken for granted.

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Columbia University Teen Bulimia Study: Participants Needed

November 7th, 2013

There’s a lot of exciting research being conducted on patients with eating disorders. The results of these studies may help us gain a better understanding of these illnesses and, ultimately, develop more effective treatments.

Here is one study which offers teenage participants free treatment for bulimia nervosa in exchange for participating:

Columbia Center for Eating Disorders Offers No Cost Treatment To Teens with Bulimia Nervosa

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center are interested in learning about the development of Bulimia Nervosa. We are looking for 10 more girls (12 to 17 years) who binge eat and purge to participate in the study. They can receive inpatient or outpatient treatment at no cost. Monetary compensation (up to $900) is also available. Please call the clinic (212-543-5739) and visit the study website for more details: http://teenbulimiastudy.org/

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The Thin Ideal and Anorexia Nervosa: Case in Point

November 6th, 2013

I’ve blogged previously about the role of the “thin ideal” in Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Conventional wisdom holds that young girls develop AN as a result of excessive dieting in pursuit of thinness, which is considered beautiful in western culture. I don’t believe that the thin ideal causes, or even contributes much, to the development of AN. However, I do believe that the thin ideal delays diagnosis, makes recovery more challenging, and normalizes and trivializes life-threatening symptoms.

I had a recent experience with a patient’s family which illustrates the way in which the thin ideal can interfere with recovery from AN. The patient, whom I will call Norah, presented in my office for eating disorder treatment at the age of 17. I diagnosed Norah with AN and began treating her with Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Norah turned out to have a relatively mild, short-lived case of AN (yes, such cases do occur, though they are not the norm), which responded quickly to a brief course of FBT.

Within a few months, Norah was virtually symptom-free and doing quite well overall. Her vital signs were good, she was getting regular periods, she no longer body-checked or weighed herself compulsively, her mood had improved, and she ate three solid meals each day with her parents or friends, consuming a wide variety of foods with no resistance. Sounds great, right?

There was just one problem: Norah’s weight had plateaued about 5 pounds below the target weight I had set for her based on her historic growth curves. This happened despite the fact that she was eating quite well, not purging, and engaging in minimal physical activity. Many teens in recovery from AN have huge nutritional requirements during re-feeding, so this was not entirely surprising. Besides, Norah had always been petite and naturally thin with a fast metabolism. Most likely, she just needed a lot more food.

Norah is a senior in high school who is planning to go away to college next year. I strongly recommended to Norah’s parents that they require her to reach full weight restoration prior to leaving for college, and that they increase her daily caloric intake to help her reach that goal. I explained that full weight restoration and return to normal growth and development are essential to recovery, and I provided them with literature on this subject. Given how tiny Norah is, a loss of even a few pounds would be enough to push her over the edge. In fact, it only took a loss of a few pounds to send her spiraling down into AN in the first place. In order to be well enough to live independently, I explained, Norah needs to gain these last five pounds and learn to maintain her optimal body weight.

Upon hearing this recommendation, Norah had a fit. She screamed and cried and lamented the injustice of it all. Why should she have to weigh “more than I’ve ever weighed before in my whole life?” (yes, one whole pound more than her historic high). I was not entirely surprised by Norah’s reaction. Although Norah had been unusually compliant in treatment thus far (and yes, such cases do exist, though they are not the norm), even a compliant anorexic has her limits.

Norah’s tantrum was foreseeable. After all, she has Anorexia Nervosa. Of course she would not want to eat more or gain more weight. Plus, Norah is a teenager with big dreams – a high school senior desperate to leave town, escape from her parents’ watchful eyes, and explore greener pastures. The mere possibility that she might not be allowed to go away devastated her.

What was not foreseeable was her mother’s reaction. Norah’s mother did not agree with my recommendation: she did not wish to require Norah to eat more food or gain more weight. Sure, she would like for Norah to gain more weight, but she was not willing to make that happen. She did not think it was fair to Norah, who had worked so hard in school and in recovery, to have to gain more weight in order to be allowed to go away for college. “After all,” said Norah’s mother, “Norah was not happy with her body at that weight, and that’s something we all need to take into consideration.”

No. Actually, we don’t need to take that into consideration.

Imbedded in Norah’s mother’s comment are several assumptions:

1.) That it is perfectly normal and rational for a teenage girl who has always been small and thin to dislike her body and aspire to be thinner

2.) That the rational solution to this teenager’s drive for thinness is to allow her to remain even thinner than before, thus interrupting normal adolescent growth and development

3.) That requiring the teenager to reach her optimal body weight – even when her optimal body weight conforms to the societal ideal – will somehow harm her psyche

None of these assumptions are true, of course. But the thin ideal makes these assumptions seem reasonable to parents and pediatricians and therapists and dieticians alike.

In an ideal world, these assumptions would always seem ludicrous to sensible adults, regardless of the patient’s size or weight. It should not be considered normal or rational for a teenager of any size or shape to dislike her body and aspire to be thinner. Losing weight should never be seen as a solution to body dissatisfaction, especially when weight loss disrupts normal adolescent growth and development. And requiring a teenager to reach and maintain her optimal body weight should not harm her psyche, regardless of whether her optimal weight lies within the realm of what society considers beautiful.

Sadly, we do not live in an ideal world. I am a member of society, just like everyone else, and I’m not immune to the impact of the thin ideal. Norah’s case seems particularly striking to me precisely because her body has always conformed to the thin ideal, and would still conform to the thin ideal after complete weight restoration. Therefore, it seemed particularly dangerous – and ridiculous – not to require her to achieve full weight restoration, because – hey – even at her optimal body weight she’d still be thin.

Here’s where the thin ideal colors my thinking. If Norah had been a large girl whose healthy body naturally gravitated towards a higher weight, her mother’s reaction might have made sense to me. If the poor girl had a stocky body type that placed her on the higher end of the growth charts, it may have seemed rational to allow her to stop five pounds short of full weight restoration. Her body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness would have seemed legitimate rather than disordered. I may have “taken into consideration” the fact that Norah “wasn’t happy with her body before.” Mother’s remark would not have changed my recommendation, but it would have given me pause. I’m not proud of this, but there you have it.

In response to Norah’s mother’s comment, I reminded Norah’s parents, as I had done at the start of treatment, that they are the leaders of Norah’s treatment team and I am a consultant to them. My job is to use my expertise in adolescent AN to guide them, inform them, and empower them to make the right decisions for their daughter. Along with these explanations, I also acknowledged that any recommendation I make is only as good as the parents’ willingness and ability to carry it out.

Ultimately, Norah’s parents chose to reject my recommendation. I suspect that the thin ideal played an important role in their decision. As for me, this situation highlighted the role of the thin ideal in my own belief system and shed light on an important point: an anorexic patient’s body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and resistance to weight restoration are symptoms of a serious illness, regardless of her size or weight. And that is something we all need to take into consideration.

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