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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Tag: Eating Disorders

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

World Eating Disorders Action Day 2017

 

Today is the second annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and I am proud to be a part of this international movement.   World Eating Disorders Action Day (#WeDoAct) is a grassroots movement designed for and by people affected by eating disorders, their families, and the healthcare professionals who support them. Uniting activists across the globe, the aim is to expand global awareness of eating disorders as genetically linked, treatable illnesses which affect both males and females across the weight spectrum, as well as people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and nationalities.

In honor of today, I would like to bring attention to films, podcasts, and websites which are spreading the messages that I am passionate about – the messages upon which I have built my practice and established my professional identity.  These messages are:

Here are the informative resources that promote these vital messages:

New Plates: A Podcast Series on eating disorders by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh.  I was thrilled to be interviewed for the first two episodes of New Plates, and my lovely associate, Dr. Tarah Martos, was featured in Episode 10.

Tabitha Farar’s blog and podcast series on adult eating disorder recovery.  I was honored to be a interviewed for her podcasts on How to Find an Eating Disorders Therapist and Eating Disorders and Starting College.

Going Sane: a fascinating and sobering documentary about the failure of the mainstream mental healthcare industry and the importance of utilizing family-centered, evidence-based practice instead.

Parents-to-Parents: A website by and for parents of children with Anorexia Nervosa.

I have seen tremendous growth within this field over the past decade, in large part due to the work of tireless parent advocates and a handful of progressive clinicians.  But still, we’ve got a long way to go.  Join me in spreading the truth about eating disorders and recovery.

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Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

World Eating Disorders Action Day

Today – June 2, 2016 – is the first annual World Eating Disorders Action Day.

In honor of this day, my esteemed colleague, Dr. Tarah Martos, and I hosted the first annual South Florida Parent Summit on Eating Disorders.  The summit provided a unique opportunity for parents of eating disorder sufferers to unite, empower one another, and learn from each other.   We spoke with the parents about envisioning recovery, relapse prevention, and a promising new treatment from Colombia University which involves habit reversal.   The lovely parents who attended the summit, despite having sons and daughters of different ages and with different presentations of illness, felt an instant connection with one another, and a freedom in discussing their experiences with other parents who really, truly get it.

I am proud that World Eating Disorders Action Day exists, and I am honored to be a part of it.   The public health messages surrounding this day have been devoted to increasing awareness that eating disorders are serious but treatable illnesses, caused by a complex interaction of genes and environment, which affect people of all ages, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and ethnic backgrounds.   These are messages I stand behind as a psychologist, as a writer, as an activist, and as a mother of a little girl whom I hope can come of age in a world where the content of these public service announcements is common knowledge.

 

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Monday, January 25th, 2016

Iatrogenic Effects

The year is 1892. Emily, age 14, is the second of six children in a Midwestern farming family. One evening in March, Emily’s mother catches a glimpse of her daughter undressing and is taken aback by how slim she looks. Over the next few days, mother notices that Emily eats very little at family meals. She mostly just pushes her food around the plate and slips pieces of her food under the table to the family’s two dogs.

Later that week, Emily’s older sister, Cora, confides in her mother that Emily is no longer getting her monthly cycles. Now mother is greatly concerned, and she has a talk with her husband, who is equally worried. Both parents sit down with Emily and express their concern over her poor eating habits, weight loss, and absence of menstrual cycles. In response to her parents’ talk, Emily bursts into tears. “I just can’t eat,” she cries. “I just can’t.” Mother and father hug their daughter, comfort her, and let her know that they will be taking her to the family doctor the next morning.

When Dr. Benson examines Emily the following day, he is alarmed by his young patient’s gaunt appearance and flat affect. She is no longer the bubbly, robust young girl he has known since birth. Emily’s pulse is much lower than normal, her muscles have wasted, and her adolescent figure has shrunken to a pre-pubescent one.

“Emily is gravely ill and melancholy,” Dr. Benson tells the worried parents. “She is malnourished, and she will need lots of food and rest to recover. She needs complete bed rest for the next three months, plenty of food at each meal, and six tall glasses of milk per day. I will see her again next week.”

Emily cries heavily all the way home, burying her head in her mother’s skirt. As soon as the family gets back to their house, her mother prepares her a large plate of food with extra bread and butter and a tall glass of milk. Mother sits beside Emily and strokes her daughter’s hair as she stares – terrified – at the heaping plate of food. “You will not be doing any chores this spring,” her father tells her firmly. “Cora will do your indoor chores and Ethan will take over your outdoor chores. You will not be returning to school this year – the 2-mile walk is too strenuous for you in this condition. Cora will speak with your teachers and bring home your assignments. You will study from home. You will return to school and chores when you are well.”

“But Papa…” pleads Emily. “I have to –“

“That’s enough, young lady. You know better than to take that tone with me. This is final.” With that, Emily’s father abruptly leaves the room. Tears stream down Emily’s cheeks as she weeps silently. Mother strokes her back and whispers: “Come on, sweetie. Eat.” Hands shaking, Emily picks up her fork and takes a bite. Mother waits with her at the table for the next two hours as she finishes every last bite of food and every last drop of milk.

19th century family

Dr. Benson makes house calls weekly over the next few months. Emily is always lying on her bed, reading and sipping a glass of milk, when he arrives. He watches the young girl slowly put on weight, regain her strength and stamina, begin to smile again, and then blossom into the cheerful teenager she was meant to be. By the time June rolls around, Emily has resumed her monthly cycle and returned to her normal weight. At this point, Dr. Benson gives her permission to begin doing some light chores around the house.

By September, Emily is eating with gusto. She has had three monthly cycles in a row and has regained her curvy figure. She returns to school and resumes all of her farm chores. Her parents are relieved to have their daughter back.

The vignette above illustrates how Anorexia Nervosa (AN) would have been treated several generations ago. Quite a stark contrast from how AN is treated today, isn’t it? The illness itself has remained basically the same throughout time, but the way that people conceptualize it and respond to it has changed dramatically. Consider the following differences between Emily’s treatment in 1892 and the treatment Emily’s great-great-granddaughter Marissa received in modern times:

1.) Emily’s parents are immediately concerned by her weight loss and dwindling food intake. They view weight loss in a growing adolescent as a sign of illness and take her to the doctor immediately. Marissa’s parents are pleased when they notice her becoming slimmer shortly after her 14th birthday. They praise her for foregoing desserts and snack foods. They encourage her interest in athletics and bring her jogging with them in the morning.

2.) Emily’s family doctor is immediately concerned by his young patient’s weight loss, lack of menses, and changed demeanor. At her 15-year-check-up, Marissa’s pediatrician commends her on her 12-pound weight loss. When Marissa’s mother expresses concern to the pediatrician about her daughter’s low heart rate and absence of menses for the past three months, the doctor explains that it is common for female athletes to lose their monthly cycle, and that Marissa’s low heart rate is also due to being a runner.

3.) The prescribed treatment for Emily – full nutrition and complete bed rest – is commenced immediately and aggressively. Eating more food is not recommended, or even suggested, for Marissa. Marissa continues running with the blessing of her doctor and the encouragement of her coach.

4.) The doctor views Emily’s parents as competent agents to re-feed their starving daughter and enforce bed rest for a prolonged period of time. Marissa’s parents are advised to “stay out of the food business” and admonished not to be the “food police.”

5.) Dr. Benson monitors Emily’s condition weekly and supports the family throughout the recovery process. Emily’s menstrual periods return naturally as she restores a healthy weight. Marissa’s pediatrician does not see her again until she develops a stress fracture 5 months later. Marissa has now lost a total of 20 pounds, and her pediatrician gently suggests that she tries to eat a little more. The pediatrician also refers her to a gynecologist, who prescribes birth control pills to re-start her periods.

6.) Emily is expected to comply with the prescribed treatment, and parents are expected to enforce it. Marissa restricts her food intake even more. She is now eating nothing but fruit, vegetables, and chicken breast. Scared to make matters worse, her parents say nothing.

7.) Emily eats hearty meals with her family every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus plenty of whole milk in between. Unable to watch her daughter starve herself any longer, Marissa’s mother takes her to a local therapist who was recommended by a neighbor. This therapist begins meeting with Marissa weekly, and also refers them to a family therapist and a dietitian. Marissa is now attending multiple appointments each week and following a 1600-calorie exchange plan created by her dietitian. She prepares her own meals, weighing and measuring everything.

8.) The doctor recommends chamomile tea with honey to soothe Emily’s nerves. Neither Emily nor her parents are blamed for her AN. The etiology of the illness is not discussed with Emily or her family, as it is not known. Marissa’s weight does not change, but her mood deteriorates. The therapist refers Marissa to a psychiatrist, who prescribes Lexapro and Klonopin. The family therapist suggests that Marissa’s AN is a cry for attention, as her father works long hours at his law firm and her mother is very preoccupied caring for her younger son with autism.

9.) Emily’s weight was restored to her normal range within three months of commencing treatment. She remains home with her family throughout and maintains good physical and mental health for the rest of her teenage years. By her 16th birthday, Marissa has lost 4 more pounds (a total loss of 24 pounds in 2 years). Her therapist recommends residential treatment at a well-marketed eating disorder treatment center in another state. Marissa spends 3 months at this residential treatment center. The psychiatrist there prescribes two additional psychotropic medications. Within a month of returning home, Marissa relapses and returns to the center for another 3 months.

10.) Emily maintains good relationships with her parents and siblings. She trusts her family to help her when she needs them. By the time she turns 18, Marissa has had three psychiatric hospitalizations, four stays in residential eating disorder treatment, and is taking five different psychotropic medications in addition to Ambien for sleep and birth control pills to regulate periods. She barely speaks to her parents and refuses to sign consents to allow them to access her healthcare information.

Emily and Marissa developed the same illness at the same age but received very different treatments and thus had very different outcomes. Emily’s AN was completely resolved within 6 months, whereas Marissa remains gravely ill and in intensive treatment four years later. Marissa experienced the iatrogenic effects that are so prevalent in modern eating disorder treatment. Iatrogenic effects are harmful outcomes caused by a medical intervention. In other words, a treatment which is intended to help a patient ends up making her condition worse or creating a new problem that wasn’t there before.

Marissa’s story is all too common. The adults around her – with good intentions – inflicted harm by prolonging her state of semi-starvation, prioritizing her adolescent autonomy above her physical health, disempowering her parents, alienating her from her family, subjecting her to time-consuming, costly, and ineffective therapies, prescribing powerful psychotropic drugs that may not have been necessary, isolating her from her primary support system, and surrounding her with other mentally ill teenagers.

modern girl

Clearly, some teenagers with Anorexia Nervosa have complicated presentations with multiple comorbidities which require a team of professionals and specialized care. But there are also many cases in which a simple and straightforward intervention would be far more effective and efficient than the iatrogenic treatments that so many kids and families endure. This is precisely why Family-Based Treatment (FBT) is so effective: it minimizes the iatrogenic effects of other eating disorder treatments. Mainstream eating disorder treatment often morphs Emilys into Marissas.

What would have happened to Marissa if she had been provided with the same treatment as her great- great-grandmother Emily? Would she, too, have regained full health in a matter of six months, and bounced back into a vibrant adolescent life? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it seems likely that she could have. It’s definitely worth a try. Our 21st century Marissas need and deserve treatment that is AT LEAST as effective as 19th century Emilys.

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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, May 18th, 2015

After Weight Restoration: The Role of Motivation

Motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. Basically, motivation is what drives us to act.

In eating disorder circles, motivation generally refers to an inner drive to achieve or maintain recovery. Given that anosognosia is a primary symptom of Anorexia Nervosa (AN), most patients have little or no insight or motivation while they are ill. When a person does not perceive herself as ill, she will not be motivated to recover. When a person perceives himself as superior while undernourished, emaciated, and hyperactive, he will be highly motivated to maintain his AN.

Fortunately, motivation is not necessary to begin recovering from AN. In Family-Based Treatment (FBT), motivation is neither expected nor required of patients during Phase I (re-feeding and weight restoration). So long as the parents are highly motivated to return their child to good health (as most parents certainly are), patient motivation is unnecessary.

There are two types of motivation:

Extrinsic motivation is a drive to perform an activity to attain a particular outcome. Extrinsic motivations come from outside the individual. For example, a student is motivated to study in order to earn good grades and gain admission to an elite college.

Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive to perform an activity for personal reasons, based on interest or enjoyment of the task itself. Intrinsic motivation exists even in the absence of external reward. For example, a young artist who is passionate about painting spends hours in the studio completely immersed in her art.

Parenting often involves the use of extrinsic motivation early on, as a pathway to developing intrinsic motivation. A toddler is motivated to use the toilet by getting a star on her chart; a preschooler is motivated to follow her parents’ rules to avoid getting a time-out; a teenager is motivated to be home by curfew to avoid getting grounded.

The ultimate goal of parenting, of course, is for the children to grow into independent adults who are no longer dependent on extrinsic motivation to exist in society. Eventually, the child feels intrinsically motivated to use the toilet because sitting in soiled underpants is uncomfortable; she is kind to her friends and siblings because it is the morally correct thing to do and she wants to maintain good relationships with them; she comes home at a decent hour so that she can get a good night’s sleep and function well the following day.

Similarly, a long-term goal of treatment for Anorexia Nervosa is for the patient to be intrinsically motivated to stay healthy and remain in recovery. But while we wait for intrinsic motivation to develop, it is perfectly fine and, in many instances, absolutely necessary, to impose external motivations in order to nudge the person along towards recovery.

Patients with Anorexia Nervosa often have little or no intrinsic motivation to recover during their acute phase of illness. In fact, most patients are highly motivated to continue engaging in eating disorder behaviors because there are powerful biological, psychological, and social forces compelling them to do so. For this reason, it is often essential to use extrinsic motivations of some sort to get patients to engage in recovery-oriented behavior such as eating meals, gaining weight, refraining from purging, and attending appointments with their treatment team.

Patients with AN are often compliant, rule-abiding people-pleasers. We can harness these traits in a positive way to promote recovery. It is common for patients to report that they are eating and gaining weight to make their parents happy or to please their doctors. It is even more common for patients to comply with re-feeding and maintain their ideal weight in order to avoid hospitalization or continue playing the sport they love.

Parents often worry that, if left to her own devices, their child would most certainly eat too little, exercise too much, start purging again, and fall down the rabbit hole once more. This worry is completely valid, and this is precisely why patients need a very high level of support and monitoring for a long time after diagnosis. Incidentally, the need for a high level of support and monitoring continues for much, much, much longer than what is provided by most treatment programs or paid for by most insurance companies. One of the reasons why patients need such high levels of support for so long is that intrinsic motivation is neither realistic nor possible for most patients until they are further along in recovery.

While acutely ill patients often lack the motivation to recover, many patients who are weight-restored and further along in their psychological recovery feel very motivated to stay well. I believe that there are several reasons for this shift in motivation in the later stages of recovery:

1.) The ability to think more clearly, thanks to a well-nourished brain and body.

2.) Maturity. Patients get older and more mature as they progress through recovery, and thanks to a more developed prefrontal cortex, they can think ahead, make plans, and follow through with their intentions.

3.) Perspective. Patients in the later stages of recovery have often been through hell and back. They have reclaimed their lives, and while they may not remember much of the acute phase of their illness, they know it was awful and they have no intention of going back.

4.) Parental intervention. Parents who have helped their children recover from AN tend to be extremely motivated to help them stay well. Perhaps more importantly, they feel empowered to use the tools and strategies they’ve learned through treatment to maintain an environment conducive to ongoing recovery and to set limits, without hesitation, on any behavior that jeopardizes recovery.

Motivation seems to be the natural consequence of restored health and improved insight. Once an adolescent or young adult is no longer encumbered by AN, he begins to realize how sick he once was, and how much AN ruined his life. As he returns to school, sports, hobbies, and an active social life, he begins to build a life worth living. This new life motivates him to stay in recovery and deters him from engaging in behaviors that could lead to relapse.

I have found that older adolescents and young adults are often motivated to stay in recovery in order to achieve their goals. For example, they want to go away to college or graduate school, they want to study abroad, they want to get married and have children, they want to travel the world, they want to have a rich and meaningful life that is not dominated by intrusive thoughts about carbs or calories or the circumference of their thighs.

How can you enhance motivation in someone who is recovering from AN? Well, intrinsic motivation, by definition, must grow and flourish from within. It cannot be imposed upon someone from the outside. However, there are a few things that family members and clinicians can do which may facilitate development of intrinsic motivation:

1.) Help the person build a full, rich, meaningful life.

2.) Remind the person periodically (not forcefully or frequently) that his new life would not be possible without continued recovery.

3.) Highlight and enhance the personal characteristics that have helped the person achieve and maintain recovery (e.g., “You are such a strong, courageous, dedicated person to have overcome this illness”).

4.) Help the person identify his core values and support him in living a life that is congruent with these values. What is most important in life? How does he want to be remembered by loved ones after he dies? Unless the person is acutely ill with AN, he is unlikely to say that being thin, exercising excessively, or avoiding sugar and flour his core values.

Staying focused on core values and pursuing a meaningful life are powerful motivators and potent antidotes to the anorexic thoughts that come to visit from time to time.

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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, August 18th, 2014

After Weight Restoration: What’s Next?

Scientific research has established that consistent full nutrition and weight restoration are the essential first steps in recovery from Anorexia Nervosa (AN). A recent study by Accurso and colleagues – the subject of my previous blog post – demonstrated that weight gain is a catalyst for broader recovery in Anorexia Nervosa (AN). The necessity of normalizing eating patterns and restoring weight applies to all patients with AN: male and female, young and old, chronic and acute, inpatient and outpatient, mild and severe. While the task of supporting weight restoration in a patient with AN is daunting and exhausting, it is very straightforward.

After weight restoration, the next steps in recovery are less certain, more varied, and highly dependent on individual differences. The best way forward is often ambiguous for someone who is well-nourished but deeply entrenched in the illness. For some people with AN, weight restoration alone is sufficient to bring about full remission. But for others, weight restoration is merely the first step in a long journey towards wellness. Unfortunately, there is little scientific research to guide us in terms of how to help people with AN who are weight-restored but still suffering mentally.

Parents are often quite adept at determining what their child needs in order to move forward. For this reason, parents continue to be essential participants on their loved one’s treatment team even after her weight is restored. Although their role on the treatment team may change a bit, and their degree of involvement may be modified, they continue to be their loved one’s greatest resource in recovery.

After weight restoration, I collaborate with the patient and her family to figure out how we can work together to support her towards full recovery. This typically involves a written treatment plan that we all agree upon. I find it incredibly helpful to have a written treatment plan, as this eliminates confusion and keeps everyone on the same page, working towards common goals.

It is not always clear what the patient needs next, so treatment after weight-restoration is very often a process of trial and error. We create a plan, implement it, and see how the patient does. If she moves forward in recovery, fantastic! If she remains stuck or regresses, we reassess her situation and modify her plan based on lessons learned from her struggles.

My next few blog posts will examine various aspects of treatment and recovery for weight-restored patients with AN. Please feel free to leave a comment if there are any particular issues you’d like me to cover on this topic in my next series of posts.

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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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Sunday, February 9th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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