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.

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Parenting Category

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

After Weight Restoration: The Role of Insight

One of the hallmark symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is anosognosia, or a brain-based inability to recognize that one is sick. For this reason, most patients have little or no insight when they first present for treatment. Even months into effective treatment, most patients with AN continue to demonstrate anosognosia from time to time, if not consistently. The irony here is that most patients with AN do not believe they are sick until after they have gotten well.

I am outspoken in my belief that insight is unnecessary, not to mention unlikely, in early recovery from Anorexia Nervosa (AN). I do not expect my patients to have any insight whatsoever early on in their treatment with me. I expect kids with AN to present in my office denying that they have a problem. Their lack of insight does not delay or undermine treatment one bit.

In Family-Based Treatment (FBT), the patient is not required to demonstrate any insight at all during Phase I (Re-feeding and weight restoration). Phase II (returning control of eating to the adolescent) and even Phase III (establishing a healthy adolescent identity) can be successfully completed with a relatively small amount of insight on the patient’s part.

The re-feeding and weight-restoration components of treatment can be achieved without the patient’s consent or compliance. Through FBT and similar family-centered approaches, parents can feed their children complete, balanced nutrition and ensure that they maintain a healthy weight for as long as necessary. In theory, a patient could exist in an externally-maintained state of physical health forever, which would be far better than suffering the long-term medical and psychological consequences of AN. But this is not recovery.

Children and younger teens tend to lack the maturity to develop good insight even after their AN has been in remission for quite some time. Lack of insight is completely normal at this stage of development, even for kids who have never had a brain disorder. It is not necessarily problematic for recovering adolescents to lack insight as long as they are living safely under their parents’ roof.

For older adolescents and young adults, however, there comes a point later in recovery, after physical health is restored and most mental symptoms have subsided, when a patient does need to develop some insight about their illness and “own their recovery.” Patients do not need insight to get well, but they certainly do need insight in order to live a healthy, fulfilling, independent life.

As a side note here, the type of insight I am referring to here has nothing to do with “discovering the root cause” or “learning to love yourself” or “finding your voice” or any of the other talking points commonly referenced in ED recovery circles. The important insights to gain, in my opinion, are the following:

1.) Acknowledging and accepting that you have (or had) an eating disorder, which is a biologically-based brain illness that you did not choose to have and your parents did not cause

2.) Acknowledging and accepting the possibility of relapse

3.) Ability to recognize eating disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in yourself

4.) Understanding the necessity of maintaining full nutrition, every day, for life

5.) Accepting the necessity of maintaining your ideal body weight in order to reduce the risk of relapse

How do you help a person who is recovering from AN to develop insight? It’s tricky, and it varies considerably based upon the patient’s own unique experience of having AN. Unlike full nutrition and weight restoration, insight cannot be thrust upon someone against their will. The patient must be an active participant in the process.

I find it helpful, as a therapist, to have frank conversations with patients and their parents about the biological basis of AN, potential triggers, vulnerability to relapse, and the importance of practicing good self-care. A single conversation at the start of treatment is rarely sufficient. Instead, I integrate these conversations into most of our sessions to help the patient absorb and internalize this information. For the first few months of treatment, these discussions are primarily for the benefit of the parents, as most kids are too malnourished and shut-down to process this information. However, after weight restoration and brain healing, these discussions can have a powerful impact on recovering kids.

Parents often have these insight-building conversations with their recovering teens at home. Often, teens will get defensive, shut down, or lash out when parents bring up these topics. But sometimes kids actually listen!

Many weight-restored patients go through a phase of romanticizing their AN, longing to return to the days of extreme thinness, perpetual motion, and hyper-focus on academics and athletics. While these feelings are understandable and typical at a certain stage of recovery, they need to be counterbalanced with conversations about the negative impact AN had on their bodies, their minds, and their lives. Otherwise, it is all too easy for recovering people to view AN through “rose-colored glasses.”

Bear in mind that the development of insight can take years. Recovered teens who initially presented for treatment at age 13-14 (the typical age of onset) will often show a blossoming of insight around age 17-18, just as they are preparing to leave home for college. This newfound insight is often the result of a variety of factors, including consistent full nutrition, brain healing, normal adolescent developmental processes, maturity, frontal lobe development, and successful therapy. I have worked with many adolescents for whom this happens beautifully, organically, and right on time. These kids go off to college in other states and thrive.

In other cases, however, the timing may be far less convenient. Those who develop AN at 16 or 17 years of age may not be sufficiently recovered to develop the insight needed to manage their illness independently at that magical age of 18. Similarly, who relapse during their junior or senior year of high school may have a setback in the process of insight development and thus may not be ready for independence right after high school.

In some cases, kids are diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence but don’t receive effective treatment until late adolescence. In these cases, it may take even longer for insight to develop if the illness has become entrenched and emotional maturity lags far behind chronological age.

Further, teens who have suffered through months or years of ineffective treatment may have built up an arsenal of bogus myth-based insight that has nothing to do with the reality of their illness. For example:

• “I developed AN as a way to cope with feeling out of control in life.”

• “I have to want to get better on my own. I have to do this for myself.”

• “Re-feeding doesn’t help us discover the root cause of your illness.”

• “I am enmeshed with my parents and this is keeping me sick. I need to become more independent.”

These myth-based “insights” very often result in parental alienation and protracted illness.

As you can see, all insight is not equal. The insights worth having are those that are based in empirical science, those that empower parents to help their offspring recover, and those that serve to help patients achieve and maintain their physical and mental health while living a full and meaningful life.

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Monday, April 14th, 2014

Weight Gain Predicts Psychological Improvement in Anorexia Nervosa

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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Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Exercise Caution: Physical Activity and Eating Disorder Recovery

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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Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

The Thin Ideal and Anorexia Nervosa: Case in Point

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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Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

As Serious As Cancer

There are several parallels between Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and cancer. Both diseases are severe and potentially fatal – the mortality rate of AN is similar to that of the most common form of childhood leukemia. Both can become chronic illnesses characterized by periods of remission and periods of relapse. Early, aggressive intervention is crucial in the treatment of AN as well as the treatment of cancer. Both diseases will grow and metastasize if left unchecked. Neither cancer nor AN is the patient’s choice or the parents’ fault. Chemotherapy is an aversive, painful treatment with unwanted side effects. The same can be said of re-feeding and weight restoration in AN – it is extremely anxiety provoking and difficult for the patient, yet it is necessary in order to eradicate the disease. Patients with AN, like patients with cancer, require a tremendous amount of help and support from caregivers for long periods of time.

Blogger Cameron Von St. James, the husband of Mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James, wrote the following essay about caring for his wife during her battle with cancer. I think it may resonate with caregivers of patients with AN.

The Hardest Battle Of Our Lives
by Cameron Von St. James

When my wife and I walked into that doctor’s office on November 21, 2005, we didn’t realize that our lives were about to change forever. Until then, we were your average couple. We both worked full-time jobs and had welcomed our first and only child into the world just 3 months prior. As we sat in the doctor’s office together, we watched our lives transform into a chaos and uncertainty before our very eyes. The doctor read the diagnosis: malignant pleural mesothelioma. Cancer, and an extremely deadly one at that. I knew we were in for a long, difficult struggle.

The doctor told us about treatment options. We could go to a local university hospital, a regional hospital that didn’t even have a specialist to deal with my wife’s form of cancer, or Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, a renowned specialist in the treatment of mesothelioma. My wife couldn’t even answer, she was so shocked and terrified. She turned to me as if to cry for help. I answered her silent plea by telling the doctor, “Get us to Boston!” That decision turned out to be one of the most important I’ve ever made in my life.

Being a caregiver my wife was extremely taxing and difficult, but it’s a job that I knew I had to do to the best of my ability. I knew I had to be strong for her and be her rock. Inside, though, my life was in turmoil. My wife had to quit her job and required more and more care each day. As a result, I was working full-time, taking care of our infant daughter, and also taking care of my beloved wife too, whisking her to one doctor appointment after another, making travel arrangements to Boston, and making her comfortable at home. It was a full schedule and there were so many times when I felt like giving up, but I knew I needed to press on.

During this time, I dealt with a multitude of fears that will never leave me. Medical bills piled up. I watched the love of my life endure pain and sickness that no one should ever have to endure. I feared what would happen to our daughter if my wife didn’t survive through this. Would she have to spend the rest of her life without a mother? And with a father that was broke because of all the medical bills? It was the hardest, most painful time I’ve ever lived through, and more than once the stress and pressure forced me to the ground in tears. I had bad days, but I never let my wife see my in my moments of weakness. I knew that she needed me to be strong, and I did my best to give her that.

After months of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Heather is cancer-free. She beat mesothelioma against all odds, and I am so proud of her. Two years after her diagnosis, I enrolled in school full-time to study Information Technology. I graduated with honors and am thankful to have been given the stage to give the speech at my graduation. It was there that I was able to see the lessons I learned and communicate my gratitude for the fact that my wife had beat cancer.

My own lessons stay with me even today. I learned that I’m strong enough to take care of someone I love, even if it is scary and often painful. I learned to use my own stubbornness to work to my advantage. Most importantly, I learned that time is precious to us all and we should spend it with the people we love so much. It’s seven years later and Heather is cancer free, and we continue to raise our beautiful daughter with the lessons we both learned. It is our hope that our story of triumph over cancer can inspire others in their own battles.

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Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

A Seat at the Table: Understanding and Helping the Siblings of Eating Disorder Patients

I feel honored to serve on the Professional Advisory Panel for FEAST, a nonprofit organization which provides support and information to the parents and families of people with eating disorders. Last weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at the second annual FEAST conference in Alexandria, VA. I spoke to a group of parents about understanding and helping their other children while also caring for their eating disordered child. Below are some of the major points from my presentation.

Eating disorders can impact the patient’s siblings from various angles:

• Through their parents. When a child is ill with an eating disorder, her siblings often receive less attention from their parents. The parents may be physically absent from the home, traveling to faraway treatment centers and attending many different appointments locally. Parents often feel worried, stressed, and irritable, and these emotions can easily spill over into their relationships with their other children.

• By impacting family life. Family meals with an eating disordered person can be tense or explosive. For this reason, siblings may begin to dread family meals or avoid them altogether. Family trips may be cancelled or ruined by the eating disorder. The financial burden of ED treatment impacts the entire family, including siblings.

• Through their social environment. Parents may not be available to drive siblings to their lessons, sports events, and social activities when they are spending long hours preparing and supervising meals and driving the ill sibling to appointments. Siblings may feel embarrassed to invite friends over when their ill sister or brother is acting particularly bizarre. Siblings may have to deal with gossip from friends and neighbors. They may feel conflicted about telling their friends about their family’s situation, and they have to deal with the stigma of mental illness.

• Through the change in eating habits. Parents are encouraged to serve their anorexic children high-calorie foods to restore their weight. Sometimes siblings over-indulge in these foods and gain unneeded weight.

• Through their genes. Biological siblings of eating disorder patients are 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder compared to the general population. Additionally, siblings of eating disorder patients may inherit genes that predispose them to other psychiatric illnesses, including depression, OCD and other anxiety disorders, substance abuse, ADHD, and autism.

Brothers and sisters may experience a variety of emotions while their sibling is ill with an eating disorder. They may worry that their sibling will get sicker or die. They may grieve for the loss of their sibling’s true personality while she is consumed by the illness, and they may miss her terribly if she is away from home for a lengthy hospitalization or residential treatment stay. They may worry about their own risk for developing an eating disorder. They may feel angry at their sibling for putting the family through hell or making mealtimes miserable. They may feel jealous because of all of the attention their ill sibling is getting. Siblings may react by withdrawing from friends and family members, having difficulty at school, or acting out. They may feel sad or hopeless. They may have difficulty concentrating. Very young siblings may manifest their distress through physical symptoms (e.g., tummy aches, trouble sleeping).

It may not be possible for parents to shield siblings completely from the impact of the eating disorder. However, there are some steps that parents can take to minimize the damage and help siblings cope:

• Immediately upon diagnosis, provide siblings with age-appropriate information on their sibling’s diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment. Explain that the disorder is biologically-based and that the child did not chose to have it. I have a Sibling reading list, as well as a list of Q & A for siblings of AN patients. Even preschool-age siblings can understand a few basic points: “Your sister has a disease in her brain called anorexia which has made her very sick. She is acting different because of her sick brain; it is not her fault. We need to help her get better. Mommy and Daddy will be very busy taking care of her, but we still love you very much.”

• Be frank with siblings about the seriousness of the eating disorder, including the possibility of death. This honesty helps siblings understand why it is so important that the family intervenes immediately and aggressively, and why other activities have to take a back seat for now.

• Be honest with siblings about the reality of dealing with the eating disorder. Acknowledge that, for a period of time, the whole family will be under stress, family life will change, and you may not be able to spend as much time with them.

• Bring siblings to some Family-Based Treatment (FBT) sessions so that the therapist can explain the eating disorder to them, describe the treatment process, answer their questions, and tell them how they can support their ill sister or brother.

• Make a point of scheduling one-on-one time with each sibling and talking with them about their lives apart from the eating disorder.

• Talk with siblings about their feelings and reactions to the eating disorder. Let them know that it is totally normal and understandable for siblings to feel worried, angry, jealous, resentful, or sad in this type of situation.

• Ensure that siblings remain in a support role, rather than taking on a parent’s role. Lock and LeGrange, authors of the FBT manual, call this process “maintaining intergenerational boundaries.” Siblings can help their ill sister by providing her with distraction before, during, and after meals, by being good listeners and providing empathy, and by engaging her in normal sibling activities. Siblings can help by taking over kitchen chores that the eating disordered person is not well enough to do, such as setting the table or doing the dishes. Do not involve siblings in the actual process of re-feeding or supervising meals, as this can put them in a delicate position of being torn between “loyalty” to their ill sister and the responsibility of reporting ED behaviors to their parents.

An eating disorder can also impact siblings in a positive way. For example, they may grow closer to their ill sibling and value her more after almost losing her. They may feel needed and important in the process of supporting their ill sister or brother. Siblings may become more aware of EDs and other psychiatric illnesses in their friends and try to intervene whenever they see concerning behaviors. They may have improved body image after witnessing the disturbing body image distress of their ill sibling. Often, siblings benefit from having more frequent family meals and structured eating habits. They may grow and mature from the experience, developing more autonomy when parents’ focus is on the eating disorder treatment. Siblings benefit from strengthened parental unity. If a sibling develops an eating disorder or another illness in the future, their parents tend to intervene immediately and are much more equipped to deal with it.

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Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Attachment to Theories

It is human nature to concoct theories in attempt to explain various phenomenon. As human beings, we have the capacity to problem-solve, to think critically and creatively about issues which impact us. For centuries, people have constructed theories as a means of “making sense” of things.

The need to create theories arises most often when the reason or cause of an event or circumstance is not readily apparent. For example, in ancient Greek mythology, the god Apollo rode his chariot across the sky every day, carrying the sun from east to west. Now we have modern science to explain the earth’s rotation on its axis every 24 hours, thus creating the appearance of the sun moving overhead from east to west, so the myth of Apollo is no longer necessary.

In modern times, science has replaced mythology and theory as our means of understanding various phenomena. While modern science has helped us understand many phenomenon, we still do not know what happens to us after death. This explains the popularity of major world religions which offer theories to answer these questions, such as heaven in Christianity or reincarnation in Hinduism.

In contrast to physics, chemistry, and biology, which have existed for millennia, psychology is a relatively new science. Relatively little is known about the causes of, and effective treatments for, mental illnesses. Therefore, numerous psychological theories have been proposed over the past century in attempt to explain psychological disorders. For example, in the 1950’s mental health professionals believed that autism and schizophrenia were caused by emotionally frigid “refrigerator mothers.”

With the advent of better science in recent decades, we have learned that parenting style plays no role whatsoever in the development of autism nor schizophrenia. While the precise causes of these brain disorders are unknown, we do know that autism and schizophrenia are neuro-biological disorders with strong heritability components, and that the patient’s parents can be extraordinarily valuable resources in treatment if they are given the right professional support.

While our current understanding of mental illness is in its infancy, recent scientific research has shed some light on factors that influence the development of mental illnesses. We also have some scientific data demonstrating that certain types of treatment are more effective than others for certain populations. In light of our current understanding of the etiology and effective treatment of mental illness, I am profoundly disappointed when I read about well-meaning but misinformed psychologists who cling to antiquated theories of mental illness and practice antiquated treatments.

For example, psychologist and author Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LICSW, believes that eating disorders are rooted in unhealthy or disrupted attachments to parents. In her recent Psychology Today blog post, she writes:

“For many individuals, eating disorders are attempts to fix externally what is internally vulnerable in an individual. Yet the cause of an eating disorder can often be traced back to attachment patterns that are weak or failing in childhood, which leave someone vulnerable to a whole host of self-esteem, self-worth and relationship issues later in life.”

This theory has a familiar odor. It reeks of refrigerator mothers, castration anxiety, and unconscious conflicts. In 1950, this was all we had. But now, in 2011, we know so much more.

Why do some psychologists cling to antiquated theories which have been disproven? Similarly, one may ask why many people cling to the theory of creationism when we have solid scientific evidence to support evolution. For some people, the notion that “we came from monkeys” is insulting and offensive and clashes with their existing belief system. The story of creationism is a foundation of Judeo-Christian religions, and (at least in its literal interpretation) is incongruent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The same is true with psychological theories. Many people who have been trained in psychodynamic or relational approaches feel that the new science runs counter to everything they have been taught and undermines the type of treatment they practice. They cling to their theories and defend them with religious fervor. The new science threatens their religion.

The problem here is that psychology is not a religion; it is a science. In the United States, we all enjoy freedom of religion – the freedom to believe whatever we wish and practice any religion we choose without persecution. We should not have freedom of science. As experts in the field of psychology with doctoral-level degrees, we should not have the freedom to write and publish whatever we happen to believe, and practice whatever method of treatment we wish, without accountability.

I was a graduate student relatively recently (2001 – 2008), and I was taught many things in my training that I no longer believe to be accurate. This is not a failure of my training; this is a reality of an evolving science. New developments occur in medicine all the time, and physicians who have been in practice for 20 years have had to learn and re-learn new ways of practicing as the science of medicine has evolved. This is expected. It is taken for granted by most patients.

As psychologists, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the latest scientific developments in our field and utilize our expertise to help people in need. Clinging to unproven theories, in the face of new science, is irresponsible, lazy, and potentially harmful. When challenged on their ideas, many old-school psychologists will use phrases such as “everyone’s opinion is valuable” or “can’t we agree to disagree” or “there is no right way to treat eating disorders” or “I feel unsafe.”

Here is the problem – this is not group therapy. We cannot sit around and validate one another’s feelings and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Yes, all people are equal, but all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are supported by reliable scientific evidence and others are not. There may not be one right way to treat eating disorders but there are many wrong ways, and there are methods and techniques which clearly work better than others for most people.

We must let go of unhealthy, dysfunctional attachments to old ideas. Clearly, these attachments to antiquated theories contribute to the development of unhelpful psychotherapy. Perhaps today’s unhelpful psychotherapy is an attempt to validate one’s early training.

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Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Leaving the Nest: 10 Tips for Parents

It’s back to school time! A new crop of 18-year-olds are leaving home to begin pseudo-independent lives in college. This is the time of year when my inbox is flooded with emails from other clinicians who are using professional list-serves to assemble treatment teams for their patients who are going off to universities in other cities or states.

“Looking for psychologist and psychiatrist in Atlanta for student entering freshman year at Emory. Bipolar disorder diagnosed in February 2011; has been stable on new meds since suicide attempt in June. Patient is very insightful but needs close monitoring.”

“Need treatment team in Boston for incoming freshman at Boston University with 4 year history of bulimia and major depression. Weight is normal but patient engages in binge/purge symptoms 3-4 times per week. Patient has delightful personality but is very entrenched in ED symptoms.”

“20-year-old patient with anorexia nervosa, social anxiety, and OCD just released from our day treatment program needs multidisciplinary treatment team in Chicago as she returns for her junior year at Northwestern University. Patient was discharged at 90% of ideal body weight and is compliant with meal plan. Needs nutritionist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and internist familiar with EDs.”

“23-year-old patient with major depression and alcoholism is entering graduate school at UMass Amherst and needs treatment team. Has 2 months sobriety.”

As I read vignettes such as these, I can’t help but wonder whether it is in the best interest of these vulnerable young people to be away at college. Adjectives like “compliant” and “insightful” and “delightful” seem to be inserted to justify the decision to send the patient away to school and/or to entice clinicians to take on these challenging cases. Qualifiers like “2 months sober” and “90% of ideal body weight” do nothing to quell my apprehension. Frankly, they frighten me more.

Let me be frank: a psychiatric diagnosis is a game changer. Any artificial deadlines, such as an 18th birthday or the start of the school year, are irrelevant. Psychiatric disorders are serious, potentially disabling (think major depression, which is a leading cause of lost productivity in the workplace), even deadly (think anorexia nervosa, which carries a 20% mortality rate). Individuals with psychiatric diagnoses can and do recover and go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives, but this requires prompt, effective treatment and a supportive, low-stress environment for a sustained period of time.

The transition to college presents numerous challenges to even the healthiest and most well-adjusted young people: leaving their hometown, family, and friends; living independently in a different city or state; adjusting to dorm life; navigating new peer relationships and social pressures; managing one’s time and money; choosing a career path and taking academically rigorous courses; assuming full responsibility for nutritional intake, sleep schedule, physical activity, and medical care.

Let’s face it: the typical college lifestyle does not promote physical or mental health. Late nights spent studying or partying, daytime napping, chronic sleep deprivation, erratic eating habits consisting mostly of processed snacks and caffeinated beverages in lieu of balanced meals. Most college students drink alcohol socially, and many drink to excess multiple times a week. Widespread use of illicit drugs as well as rampant abuse of black market prescription drugs as study aids (e.g. Adderall) or sleep aids (e.g., Xanax) is a mainstay of university life. Casual sex with multiple partners, often unprotected and usually under the influence of alcohol, is the norm on most campuses.

Navigating these challenges successfully requires a certain level of mental and emotional stability. Maintaining good self-care in an environment where virtually everyone else practices unhealthy habits requires a maturity and strength of character that is beyond the reach of most 18, 19, and 20 year olds.

I have treated patients before, during, and after college, and have counseled their parents throughout this process. I worked at three different university counseling centers during my doctoral training. During that time I worked with dozens of students struggling with psychiatric illnesses and gained an intimate understanding of what universities do, and don’t do, to support students with mental health problems.

Now, as a psychologist in private practice near two large universities, I treat a number of college students as well as high-school students who hope to go away to college in the near future. I also have a few patients who had attempted to go away to college in the past, but experienced a worsening of symptoms, a full-blown relapse, or in some cases life-threatening complications which rendered them unable to live independently. These are young people who have returned home to the safety of their families and are now going through treatment to repair the damage with hopes of living independently in the future.

I have developed the following professional recommendations for parents of young people with psychiatric illnesses based on these clinical experiences as well as the latest scientific research:

1.) If your child is a junior or senior in high school and hopes to go away to college in the future, begin working with her and her treatment team now to establish criteria to assess her readiness for going away to college. I recommend collaboratively establishing a written plan which includes specific, measurable criteria which the child must meet before she is permitted to leave home.

2.) If your child has had life-threatening symptoms (suicide attempt, drug/alcohol abuse, eating disorder), ensure that her condition is in full remission for at least 6 months prior to letting her go away to college. For example:
- A child with bipolar disorder should have at least 6 months of mood stability without any manic or major depressive episodes.
- A child who has attempted suicide should have a minimum of 6 months without any suicidal behaviors, gestures, or urges.
- A child with a substance abuse problem should have at least 6 months of complete sobriety.
- A child with anorexia nervosa should have at least 6 months of eating independently without restriction while maintaining 100% full weight-restoration with regular menstrual periods.
- A child with bulimia nervosa should have at least 6 months of normalized eating with complete abstinence from all binge/purge behaviors.

3.) A young person going off to college should have, at most, minimal or mild mental/emotional symptoms. For example, a child with an anxiety disorder who has occasional panic attacks, or who feels somewhat anxious at parties around new people, may be able to function well at college, but a child who has panic attacks multiple times a week or who avoids most social situations is not yet ready to go away.

4.) Ensure that your child has effective tools to manage any symptoms that may arise. This may include CBT or DBT skills to manage feelings of depression or anxiety.

5.) Work with your child and her treatment team to develop a self-care plan that includes plenty of sleep, physical activity, time management, and balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals.

6.) Do not rely upon university services (student health center or student counseling center) to provide therapy, psychiatric, or medical services for your child. University counseling centers are not equipped to manage the needs of students with major mental health issues. Most student counseling centers are over-worked, under-staffed, and underfunded. By necessity, most have limits on the number of sessions each student can attend, and most will not support parental involvement in treatment decisions or even communicate with parents at all.

7.) Prior to your child’s departure for college, establish a treatment team off-campus.
- Interview the clinicians over the phone and schedule a family meeting in person with the clinician before the school year starts, during the time you are helping your child move into the dorms. If the clinician is reluctant to talk with you over the phone or refuses to meet with you in person, this is a red flag.
- I recommend selecting a clinician who welcomes individualized, appropriate parental involvement in college students’ mental healthcare. This means working collaboratively with parents based upon the individual patient’s needs in light of her diagnosis, history, and developmental stage, irrespective of her chronological age.
- Ensure that your child signs releases of information allowing you to communicate with the clinician regarding your child’s care (law requires that persons over 18 must provide written permission for a mental health professional to release information to anyone, including parents).
- Use the initial family meeting to provide the clinician with any relevant history about your child’s condition. Written psychological evaluations or discharge summaries from previous treatment providers are very helpful in this regard.
- Work collaboratively with the new clinician and your child to establish frequency of contact, and nature of communication, between you and the new clinician. For instance, I often work out a plan wherein I call parents every two weeks, or once a month, with a general progress report on the patient, without revealing the specific content of sessions (e.g., “Mary is adjusting well to dorm life. She’s had some mild anxiety but she seems to be managing it well.” Or “Annie has been struggling with an increase in depressive symptoms over the past week. I will keep you posted and notify you right away if there is any indication of suicidality or deterioration in functioning.”) Be very clear about the type of information that will be shared between clinician and parents. It is important for the patient to establish a trusting relationship with the clinician and to feel secure that, in general, “what happens in therapy stays in therapy.” It is equally important for the parents to be reassured that they will be notified promptly if the child’s condition deteriorates.

8.) Have a safety net in place. Decide exactly what extra supports will be provided, and under what circumstances, if the child should experience an increase in symptoms while away at college. For example: an increase in symptoms lasting longer than one week may result in the child coming home for the next weekend, or perhaps a parent would travel to stay with the child in a hotel for a week or two.

9.) Have a plan B.
- Work collaboratively with your child and her new treatment team to establish what conditions would warrant a more serious intervention.
- Some situations, in my opinion, warrant a medical leave and an immediate return to the safety of home. For example, a suicide attempt or gesture, an episode of alcohol poisoning, a weight loss of more than 5 pounds (in the case of anorexia nervosa) or a recurrence of binge/purge symptoms lasting longer than a couple of weeks (in the case of bulimia).

10.) Always remember, and reiterate to your child: whatever happens is feedback, not failure.
- A medical leave of absence is not the end of the world. Nor is it permanent. It is simply an indication that your child temporarily needs more support than can be provided in the college setting. It is no different from a young person taking a leave of absence for major surgery or cancer treatment (try getting that done in the student health center!).
- Many young adults recover more swiftly from a relapse compared to the first time they were ill – the benefit of maturity and the motivation of wanting to return to college and independent living can be very helpful in this regard. If your child does well at home and recovers from the relapse, she may be able to return to school away from home the following semester or the following year.
- Depending on the circumstances and the course of your child’s illness, it is possible that the best scenario for her would be to live at home and attend college locally, or transfer to a school in-state and come home each weekend. Again, this is not the end of the world. If her recovery is robust after college, she will still have the opportunity to go away to graduate school or start the career of her dreams somewhere else.

Attending college is a privilege and a gift, not an inalienable right. It is not something that one must automatically do right after graduating from college. Living away from home, apart from one’s primary support system, to attend a faraway school is a privilege unique to American culture, and is not a prerequisite for success in any way. In most other countries, young people who do attend college (and not everyone does) do so locally while living at home until they are married.

Take your child’s psychiatric diagnosis very seriously, and do the right thing for her health. As her parent, it is not only your right but your duty to make these decisions, and you should be supported by a treatment team that empowers you to do so.

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Thursday, June 30th, 2011

When Books are Wrong

A new book on eating disorder treatment entitled When Food is Family will be published later this year. The book is written by a therapist with over 25 years of experience treating eating disorders who is also the founder and director of an eating disorder clinic.

The premise of When Food is Family is that early childhood relationships play a significant role in the development of an eating disorder. The book is based on attachment theory, which posits that “emotional support, understanding, empathy, and acceptance during a child’s development are the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.” The author asserts that children develop eating disorders in part because they do not receive the emotional support and nurturing they need from their families, so they develop a “relationship with food” as a substitute for the intimate familial relationships they crave.

According to the online synopsis, When Food is Family “provides family members a step-by-step approach to understanding what attachment means, why connection to each other is important, how relationship breakdowns can lead to an eating disorder, how food becomes the relationship of choice, and how to go about repairing these relationships so that food (and the eating disorder) is replaced by healthy relationships within the family.”

My primary concern with this book is that it seems to set our field back about 20 years. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support the theory that disrupted attachments or dysfunctional family relationships lead to eating disorders. Nor is there any reliable evidence that treatment approaches predicated on these attachment theories help patients achieve recovery.

I absolutely agree that “emotional support, understanding, empathy, and acceptance during a child’s development are the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.” Of course childhood environment is important in the development of self-esteem and emotional well-being. Of course “relationship breakdowns” within a family cause emotional suffering for everyone. Disrupted attachments are bad. Healthy attachments are good. But I am not aware of any evidence that disrupted attachments can lead to eating disorders.

The fact that some eating disorder patients come from dysfunctional families does not indicate that said family dysfunction caused their eating disorder. Correlation does not equal causation. Despite decades of research and millions of dollars spent on cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, researchers have not been able to identify anything that parents do, or don’t do, to cause eating disorders in their children.

The theories espoused by this book are not only unfounded and incongruent with our modern scientific understanding of eating disorders, but also potentially harmful to young patients and their families who are seeking treatment for these life-threatening illnesses.

When parents have a child with a poorly-understood, stigmatized, confusing, life-threatening illness such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, they do not need to be told by an expert that family dysfunction is at the root of her illness. The family unit is not well-served when parents are told by an expert that they have failed to bond properly with their children, and this failure to bond has resulted in their child developing a serious illness. Parents with an anorexic or bulimic child do not need to be taught skills to develop healthy attachments with their children. They need well-informed professional support which empowers them to take aggressive action to help restore their child to health.

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Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Why Psychodynamic Therapy is Harmful for Eating Disorder Patients

1.) The approach is based upon theory rather than empirical data.

Decades ago, when psychologists and psychiatrists first began treating eating disorders, psychodynamic therapy was the only tool they had. Science has come a long way since then. While there is still so much about the illness that we don’t understand, we have learned a great deal in the past decade about the etiology of eating disorders and how to treat them more effectively. Why use theory-based practice when we have evidence-based practice?

2.) It confuses symptoms with causes.

For example, one psychodynamic theory posits that girls develop anorexia nervosa due to their fear of growing up and their desire to remain child-like. In reality, the ammenorhea and boyishly-thin bodies of anorexic girls are symptoms of the illness.

3.) Insight and motivation are over-emphasized, especially early in treatment.

Insight and motivation are crucial to sustaining wellness later in the recovery process. But patients with anorexia nervosa suffer from anosognosia, a brain-based inability to recognize that they are ill. The problem with emphasizing insight and motivation early in treatment is the presumption that the patient must “choose” to get well and that, if she does not make that “choice,” no one else can make it for her. Precious weeks, months, even years are wasted trying to form an alliance, cultivate motivation, and develop insight.

4.) It presumes that the patient’s family dynamics are at least partially to blame for the eating disorder, and that correcting the family dysfunction will help the patient recover.

There is no reliable scientific evidence to support these theories. Families of eating disorder patients do typically present for treatment with high levels of conflict and tension. The conflicted parent-child relationship, however, is most likely the result of the eating disorder rather than the cause. Having a child with any serious illness creates enormous strain on even the healthiest, most functional families.

5.) It presumes that there is a “deeper meaning” in symptoms which are the result of malnourishment and/or faulty brain chemistry.

A great deal of time and money is wasted attempting to discern this deeper meaning. Meanwhile, the patient’s brain and body are failing, placing him or her at risk of permanent medical and psychiatric problems. I advise patients and families: Don’t waste time on “why.” The reality is that we don’t know exactly what causes anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

We still do not know the cause of many types of cancer, but we begin aggressive cancer treatment immediately upon diagnosis because the longer it goes untreated, the more grim the prognosis becomes. We can remove a tumor or give chemotherapy without knowing how the tumor originated. The same principles apply with eating disorders – the patient’s nutrition and weight must be normalized immediately, and dangerous behaviors must be stopped right away. The patient will benefit from these interventions, both physically and mentally – even if the “reason” for the eating disorder is unknown.

6.). Too much attention is paid to early experiences, often at the expense of solving problems in the here and now.

Psychodynamic theory presumes that psychiatric disorders stem from early childhood experiences. In reality, childhood experiences are generally irrelevant to the patient’s eating disorder. Even in instances in which early experiences are relevant to the current illness, there is no evidence that an ill patient can overcome her eating disorder “exploring” or “processing” such experiences.

7.) Too much value is placed on the relationship between therapist and patient.

While I completely agree that the therapeutic relationship is very important to the healing process (and there is solid research supporting this), I believe that this relationship must take a backseat to treating the eating disorder aggressively. This means that in order to be optimally effective, the therapist must listen to the patient’s basic needs rather than her expressed wishes (translation: the ED’s wishes), consistently nurturing her relationships with family members when she (translation: the ED) wants them to leave her the f*** alone, and setting firm limits on her ED behavior immediately rather than waiting for her to develop the motivation and insight to do so herself. In my experience, this often means that the patient (translation: the ED) will hate me at the beginning of treatment, then gradually grow to trust, admire, and respect me as treatment progresses and her brain returns to healthy functioning. Most patients eventually express gratitude for that early toughness and understanding of what had to be done, recognizing that they wouldn’t have been able to recover without it.

8.) It undermines the relationship between the patient and his or her parents.

Psychodynamic therapy involves deep exploration of childhood experiences and family relationships in attempt to uncover the seeds of the patient’s current mental conflict. The typical result of this type of therapy is that the patient begins to distrust and resent her parents for making her ill, and the parents back off even further out of fear of making problems worse. This results in further exacerbation of existing family conflict and the creation of new problems, once the patient “realizes” how pathological her family really is.

We now know, through research on family-based treatment, that empowering parents to help their children overcome eating disorders is actually the most effective way to help them recover. I believe that nurturing positive relationships between the patient and her family members is essential for full recovery and ongoing relapse prevention, as family members are usually the first to notice signs of struggle, and the first ones to intervene.

9.) It is extremely difficult to undo the damage done by psychodynamic treatment.

A substantial amount of the trauma that patients and families endure is not the result of the eating disorder itself, but rather the result of bad treatment and protracted illness. Often, patients and their families come to me for family-based treatment after months or years of traditional therapy which has not been effective. Even a newly-diagnosed patient will struggle with re-feeding, but having a history of traditional treatment makes the process much more tumultuous. It is extremely difficult for the patient to accept meal support from their parents when they have been conditioned to believe that separation/individuation issues are at the root of their illness, or that they have developed their eating disorder as a way to survive in a dysfunctional family, or that they will recover when they choose. Further, parents struggle enormously to become empowered to act on their child’s behalf when they have been blamed for causing the illness, either overtly or subtly, by their child’s previous clinicians.

10.) It does not bode well for relapse prevention.

Unfortunately, eating disorders have a very high rate of relapse, in part because the underlying biological vulnerability stays with the patient for life. In order to maintain full recovery, it is extremely important for the patient to maintain his or her optimally healthy body weight, practice excellent self-care, manage stress adaptively, and eat a complete, well-balanced diet. The beliefs that one’s eating disorder resulted from internal conflict, or that “it’s not about the food,” are not terribly conducive to these protective measures.

As science has progressed and newer, more effective treatments have been developed, there has been a backlash from the “old school.” Those who remain entrenched in outdated, unproven psychodynamic theories will defend their beliefs like a lioness defends her cubs because – let’s face it – these theories are their babies. They have built careers on these ideas; written books about them; conceptualized their own recovery through these lenses. But that does not make these theories correct, or evidence-based, or useful, or effective in treatment.

Let’s welcome a new generation of clinicians who use evidence-based treatment that strengthens family relationships, treats deadly symptoms rather than hypothesized causes, and promotes full and lasting recovery for all patients. Let’s welcome a new generation of patients and families who are not blamed for the illness, but are empowered to pursue aggressive, effective treatment upon initial diagnosis. Let’s welcome treatment that actually works and refuse to support treatment that doesn’t.

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