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.