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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Psychotherapy Category

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

There’s an App for That!

 

Technology can be used in a variety of ways to enhance mental health and aid in recovery from psychological disorders.   For example, patients can use smart phone apps to help them track moods and symptoms, implement coping strategies, and reach out for help from clinicians and peers when needed.   Most evidence-based, behaviorally-oriented treatments for mental health problems – such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – require some degree of self-monitoring.  These types of treatments also strongly encourage daily practices to enhance well-being, such as journaling, identifying and challenging negative thoughts, diaphragmatic breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

Most of the teenagers and college students I work with are far beyond the old pen-and-paper logs and worksheets I was trained to use during graduate school.  It seems there’s an app for everything these days, and so many of these apps are relevant to mental health and wellness.  Today’s young people organize their lives on their smart phones anyway, so it is only natural that we would look to the smartphone to help them self-monitor their symptoms, complete their therapy assignments, and keep track of the strategies they use to help themselves.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that are useful to people with mental health conditions.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Recovery Record app helps patients with eating disorders self-monitor their meals and snacks as well as thoughts, feelings, and urges that arise around food.

The Insight Timer app offers a meditation timer, thousands of free guided meditation tracks, groups for like-minded meditators, and the ability to track quantitative statistics such as how many minutes the user spends each day in meditation.

DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach is an electronic version of the Diary Card used in standard DBT practice, which helps the patient track target behaviors and utilize DBT skills from the modules of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The nOCD app helps patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder implement their exposure and response prevention treatment while compiling objective, real-time data on their experience.

I am a firm believer that what transpires in the therapist’s office is only a fraction of the treatment package.  Most of the healing process results from consistent changes that patients and their families make on a daily basis at home, at school, and in various social settings.   Thanks to modern technology, individuals who are committed to improving their well-being are now able to hold new tools, literally, in the palms of their hands.

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Friday, January 22nd, 2016

After Weight Restoration: Mindfulness for Body Image

There are some people with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) who continue to struggle with significant body dissatisfaction well after their weight has been fully restored and normal eating patterns have been established. For these individuals, mindfulness can be a powerful tool to help them make peace with their bodies.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program for treating depression, defines mindfulness as: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Although mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhist philosophy, it is not a religious practice in itself. Mindfulness can be practiced formally, through mediation, or informally, by learning to be mindful while performing everyday tasks.

Research has demonstrated that mindfulness can reduce the tendency to react emotionally and ruminate on transitory thoughts. It follows, then, that mindfulness – especially with its focus on acceptance and non-judgment – may help people let go of negative thoughts about their bodies.

Yoga, a mindful form of movement with benefits for both physical and mental health, can help alleviate the mental symptoms of eating disorders. A randomized controlled trial of adolescents undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders found that adding yoga to a teen’s treatment plan helped to reduce food preoccupation, body dissatisfaction, and eating disordered thoughts. In recent years, many treatment centers have added yoga to their programs.

I often recommend yoga to my newly weight-restored patients as a means of reconnecting with their bodies, reducing stress, and improving physical fitness. Recovering people frequently enjoy yoga even more than they expected to. As one of my college-aged patients told me: “When I was really sick with Anorexia, I felt like my body was something I had to beat into submission. Now, I feel like my body and I are on the same team.”
That is the essence of yoga – a union of body and mind.

Mindfulness has become very popular in the field of mental health. The newer third wave behavior therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) all contain a core component of mindfulness. These mindfulness-based treatments have been adapted specifically for targeting body image.

Anyone with a book or a computer can begin practicing mindfulness for body image. It does not require a therapist or other trained professional. There are plenty of self-help books and internet resources on this topic:

ACT For Body Image Dissatisfaction
Living With Your Body and Other Things You Hate
The Free Mindfulness Project

Many of my patients in their late teens and early 20’s find that taking a mindfulness approach to their body image is more helpful than a simple cognitive-behavioral approach. Letting go of the struggle, and accepting their bodies as they are right now, brings a sense of peace and contentment which is quite the opposite of the constant struggle of an eating disorder.

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Monday, November 2nd, 2015

After Weight Restoration: CBT for Body Image

As noted in my previous blog post and the comments that follow, full nutrition and weight restoration will often reduce or eliminate the body image disturbance that plagues so many people with Anorexia Nervosa (AN). This is one of the many reasons why it is essential for AN treatment to require full nutrition and prompt weight restoration.

On the other hand, some people with AN continue to experience intense body dissatisfaction after weight restoration. In these cases, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help improve body image and reduce suffering.

In order for CBT to be effective, the patient has to have some motivation to engage in the treatment and some desire to improve her body image. The patient also needs to have the insight to understand that her body itself is not the problem, so changing her body weight or shape is not the solution. Rather, the problem is that she has some negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to her body that cause her to suffer. It is those negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that will be the targets for intervention. The insight, motivation, and judgment required for effective body image treatment is yet another reason why this intervention is most effective after full weight restoration.

Many of the CBT-informed interventions for body image are similar to those that are effective in treating anxiety and depression. Consider the following:

Cognitive Restructuring
This involves identifying and challenging distorted automatic thoughts related to one’s body image. Examples of distorted automatic thoughts include: “My thighs are enormous,” “I’m the fattest person in this room,” or “Everyone is staring at me because I’m huge.”

The patient may need some help identifying distorted thoughts because they may seem normal or accurate to her. Once she is able to identify a distorted thought as such, the patient is asked to keep a log of the thoughts as they occur. With the help of the therapist, the patient then learns to identify patterns of distorted thoughts, challenge her own thinking, and generate more rational thoughts to replace the distorted ones.

For example, “Everyone is staring at me because I’m huge” contains distortions of over-generalization and mind-reading. Is EVERYONE really staring at you? No. In a room of 30 people, maybe 2 are looking at you. That isn’t everyone. Do you know for sure that they think you are huge? No, because they didn’t say anything of the sort. Why else might they be looking at you? Maybe they like your shirt.

Exposure and Response Prevention
This involves systematically desensitizing the patient, little by little, to her body image fears for the purpose of improving her quality of life. For example, if the patient loves the beach but can’t bring herself to go because she is ashamed of her body in a bathing suit (this is a frequent scenario in my South Florida-based practice!), the therapist may begin by helping her create a hierarchy or “ladder” of challenges increasing in difficulty. The patient would need to “master” each task before moving on to the next one.

For example:
1.) Go to the beach with your best friend at a time when very few people are there, wearing a shirt and shorts over your swimsuit.
2.) Go to the beach with your best friend at a time when very few people are there, wearing just shorts over your swimsuit.
3.) Go to the beach with your best friend at a time when very few people are there, wearing just a shirt over your swimsuit.
4.) Go to the beach with your best friend at a time when very few people are there, and spend 2 minutes wearing just your swimsuit.
5.) Go to the beach with your best friend at a time when very few people are there, and spend 10 minutes wearing just your swimsuit.
6.) Go to the beach with your best friend at a time when very few people are there, and spend an hour wearing just your swimsuit.
7.) Go to the beach with your best friend when many other people are there, and wear a cover-up.
8.) Go to the beach with your best friend and spend 2 minutes wearing just your swimsuit.
9.) Go to the beach with your best friend when many other people are there, and spend 10 minutes wearing just your swimsuit.
10.) Go to the beach with your best friend when many other people are there, and spend an hour wearing just your swimsuit.
11.) Go to the beach without your best friend and wear a swimsuit the whole time.

Environmental Alterations
Once a patient is able to recognize patterns in her negative body image thoughts, she can choose to focus her attention on people, places, and activities that promote positive thoughts and feelings, while reducing or eliminating the negative influences. For example, if a patient has a friend who engages in a lot of “fat talk,” the patient may be assertive with this friend and ask her to stop talking this way around her, or she may decide to stop spending time with this particular friend and hang out with more supportive friends instead. Likewise, if following fitness Instagram accounts makes the patient feel badly about her body, she may decide to stop following these accounts.

Along these lines, many patients find it helpful to donate their outgrown, tight-fitting, or unflattering clothes to charity. The feeling of tight clothes on the body, or the sight of too-small clothes hanging in the closet, can be very triggering. Most people feel much more confident wearing comfortable, flattering clothes.

Eliminating Body Image Rituals
Some people engage in “body checking” rituals, which may be anything from measuring their wrist circumference with their fingers, grabbing the flesh of their belly, spending excessive time in front of the mirror, or trying on 10 different outfits before finding one that looks “just right.” These types of rituals may reduce anxiety in the short term, but they end up becoming self-perpetuating and increasing body dissatisfaction in the long-term.

CBT for body image can be done with a CBT-oriented therapist who has experience working with eating disorders and body image concerns. In my practice, I sometimes use CBT for body image in weight-restored patients with AN after their family has completed a course of FBT (only if it is needed and requested, of course!). I also use it in patients with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) or Binge Eating Disorder (BED) after eating patterns have been normalized, and with non-eating disordered patients who suffer from anxiety or depression and also happen to have struggles with body image.

However, improving body image does not necessarily require a therapist’s help. A motivated patient may be able to utilize these interventions on her own, or with the help of a parent, using internet resources or a guided self-help workbook. I often recommend Thomas Cash’s The Body Image Workbook, 2nd Edition.

There are other interventions for body image derived from 3rd wave behavioral therapies such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). These will be the topic of my next post.

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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 6th, 2014

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

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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Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Effective Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa: A Good Start

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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Saturday, January 18th, 2014

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

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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Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Sleep and Mood Disorders: Implications for Mental Health Care

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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Monday, November 4th, 2013

Summary of Treatment Outcomes

My blog posts from June through November 2013 have been devoted to describing my patients’ treatment outcomes. I’ve been advised that my recent posts have been too data-heavy and too detailed, but hey – that’s how I roll. I like to be thorough, meticulous, and transparent. Prospective patients and their families deserve to have access to this information. But for those who prefer brevity, I’ve summarized my treatment outcomes below. Click on the headings in bold for details.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa


Fifty-seven percent of my former patients with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) completed treatment. Of the “treatment completers,” 94% reached full remission and the remaining 6% reached physical remission. Patients required, on average, 28 sessions over the course of 17 months to complete treatment.

Forty-three percent of my former patients with AN did not complete treatment with me. Of the “treatment non-completers,” 23% were referred to other treatment settings which could better meet their needs; 15% moved to other geographic locations during treatment and thus were referred for treatment near their new homes; and the remaining 62% dropped out of treatment prematurely.

    Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified


Thirty-three percent of my former patients with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) completed treatment. One-hundred percent of those who completed treatment reached full remission. On average, patients took 15 sessions over the course of 10 months to complete treatment. Amongst patients with BN, 44% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely. For patients with EDNOS, 17% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely.

    Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders


Twenty-nine percent of patients my former patients with primary diagnoses of mood disorders completed treatment. Of the patients who completed treatment, 83% achieved full remission and the remaining 17% made significant progress. On average, patients took approximately 23 sessions over the course of 11 months to complete treatment.

Thirty-eight percent of mood disorder patients quit treatment prematurely, 24% were referred to other treatment providers who could better meet their needs, and 9% moved to other geographic locations during their treatment and were referred for treatment near their new homes.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anxiety Disorders


All of my former patients with primary diagnoses of anxiety disorders who attended more than two sessions experienced substantial improvement in anxiety symptoms as well as significant improvement in functioning, even if they did not complete a full course of treatment. Patients with anxiety disorders attended an average of 10 sessions over the course of 6 months.

Amongst those who completed a full course of treatment, 75% achieved full remission and the remaining 25% made significant progress.

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