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: Family-Based Treatment

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

After Weight Restoration: Envisioning Recovery

In making a post weight-restoration recovery plan, I find it helpful to envision what full recovery will look like for this particular individual, and then break it down into small steps to help her achieve these ends. In my opinion, full recovery from AN involves all of the following:

• Ability to feed oneself the appropriate quantity, quality, and balance of nutrition.
• Ability to maintain one’s optimal body weight with an age-appropriate level of independence.
• Ability to accept and tolerate one’s body size, shape, and weight.
• Complete absence of eating disordered behaviors such as fasting, food restriction, binge eating, and purging.
• Ability to enjoy regular physical activity without compulsion.
• Engaging fully in all aspects of life, including school, family life, social life, and recreational activities. For older patients, this may also include employment, dating and romantic relationships.
• Freedom from constant preoccupation with food, weight, and body image.
• Mindful awareness of one’s predisposition towards AN and ability to avoid or manage potential triggers.

In my opinion, full recovery from AN does not necessarily involve any of the following:
• Ability to eat intuitively
• Ability to eat spontaneously
• Ability to eat sweets or “junk food”
• Return to the eating habits one had prior to the onset of the eating disorder
• Loving one’s body
• Not caring about one’s weight at all
• Complete absence of eating disordered thoughts
• Freedom from monitoring (for example, going for long periods without being weighed)

Of course, it would be wonderful if a person recovered from AN could do any or all of the above. If one of my patients does one of these things, I view it as a very positive sign, an indication that a person has reached a new level of freedom from AN. Parents of recovering kids often long for them to walk into the kitchen and grab a handful of chips, eat candy with abandon, or ask to go out for ice cream.

If a person in recovery does these things, that is fantastic, and it should be celebrated! Often, these things happen naturally after a year or two or three of weight restoration. But these things may not be realistic for some people with a history of AN. And if these things never happen, that is OK.

What is most important, in my opinion, is for a person in recovery to do whatever it takes to live a rich, happy, healthy, fulfilling and productive life. This is what recovery means to me.

Sometimes parents and clinicians worry that a patient’s avoidance of sweets, or inability to eat intuitively, or adherence to a structured plan of meals and snacks is “part of the disorder.” This may be true. But this is not inherently a bad thing.

Some recovered people may never want to be weighed again, because it reminds them of what it was like when they were ill. Some recovered people may resent having to eat three balanced meals every day, or not being able to diet like their friends, or not getting to participate in fasting for religious reasons like their families. Sometimes they just long to be “normal.” These feelings are completely understandable. However, this does not change the reality that people recovered from AN often have special needs which require them to be careful about their health in ways that other people are not. We cannot rewind time to the days before the illness began. We should not pretend AN never happened.

I find it helpful to assess a person’s stage of recovery using the following question:

“Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while _______________________.”

Then, fill in the blank with the issue in question to help determine whether it is in the patient’s best interest to accept it or change it.

For example:
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while also getting weighed every week at the doctor’s office? YES
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while being 5 pounds underweight? NO
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while never eating dessert or snack foods? YES
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while restricting dietary fat or carbohydrates? NO
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while being tormented by frequent thoughts about food and weight? NO
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while wishing she had thinner legs and having occasional thoughts about restricting food? YES
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, without being able to eat intuitively or spontaneously? YES

Keep in mind that accepting something is not the same as liking it, and acceptance does not mean abandoning hope that things will improve. Rather, acceptance is about acknowledging reality and embracing it without judgment, while doing what works, in this moment, to maintain wellness.

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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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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, November 6th, 2013

The Thin Ideal and Anorexia Nervosa: Case in Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Thursday, July 18th, 2013

A Comparison of Treatment Outcomes: AN, BN, and EDNOS

My previous posts described treatment outcomes and correlates of my patients with various eating disorder diagnoses, including Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Some findings were similar across diagnostic groups:

• The vast majority of patients with any diagnosis who completed treatment achieved full remission.

• The attrition rate, overall, was high.

Family-Based Treatment (FBT) was associated with treatment retention, meaning that patients who participated in FBT were less likely to discontinue treatment prematurely than those receiving individual therapy.

• Patients who paid a reduced rate for services were much less likely to complete treatment and much less likely to achieve remission than those who paid full rate.

• Hospitalization during treatment with me was not related to treatment completion or treatment outcome, regardless of diagnosis.

• History of intensive eating disorder treatment (e.g., residential treatment, day treatment) was related to treatment non-completion and poorer outcome for patients across diagnoses.

Quite surprisingly, the differences among the diagnostic groups outnumbered the similarities:

• Patients with AN who completed treatment attended more sessions, over a longer period of time, than patients with BN or EDNOS. Completing treatment for AN involved an average of 28 sessions over 17 months, whereas completing treatment for BN or EDNOS involved an average of 15 sessions over 10 months.

• Type of treatment had a significant impact on outcome for patients with AN but not for patients with BN or EDNOS. All AN patients who achieved remission did so through FBT. However, patients with BN and EDNOS achieved remission through various means, including individual therapy with no family involvement, individual therapy with family involvement, and FBT.

• Younger age at intake and shorter duration of illness predicted treatment completion and remission for patients with AN. However, neither age nor duration of illness affected treatment outcome for patients with BN or EDNOS.

• All “treatment non-completers” with AN (those who quit prematurely, moved away, or were referred to other treatment settings) discontinued treatment within the first six months. In contrast, a number of “treatment non-completers” with BN or EDNOS remained in treatment for more than a year.

• Among patients with AN, those who completed treatment attended significantly more sessions than those who did not (28 sessions vs. 8 sessions) and remained in treatment for a much longer time than those who did not (17 months vs. 3 months). In contrast, for patients with BN and EDNOS, treatment completers and non-completers both remained in treatment for an average of 10 months, and treatment non-completers actually averaged more sessions than treatment completers (20 sessions vs. 15 sessions). Thus, it appears that for BN and ENDOS, treatment completers did not remain in treatment longer, but rather reached remission more quickly.

• Caucasians with AN were slightly more likely than Hispanics with AN to complete treatment and achieve remission. In contrast, Hispanics with BN or EDNOS were significantly more likely than Caucasians with these diagnoses to complete treatment and achieve remission.

• The presence of a comborbid disorder was not related to treatment completion or treatment outcome for patients with AN. However, the presence of a comorbid disorder was a significant predictor of treatment dropout and poorer outcome for patients with BN and EDNOS.

• History of hospitalization for an eating disorder or related psychiatric issue was related to poorer outcome for patients with BN and EDNOS, but not for patients with AN.

• Taking psychotropic medication during treatment was related to treatment completion and positive outcome for patients with AN but not for patients with BN or EDNOS.

Please bear in mind that these findings are specific to my practice and my patients, and are not intended to be generalized to other treatment settings or other patients.

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Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Correlates of Treatment Outcome for Patients with BN & EDNOS

My previous post described the treatment outcomes of my 21 former patients with diagnoses of Bulimia Nervosa (BN) or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Treatment was very successful for these patients, with 100% of those who completed treatment (n = 7) achieving full remission. However, the attrition rate was very high, with two-thirds of patients (n = 14) discontinuing treatment prematurely for various reasons. Nineteen percent (n = 4) of patients were referred to other providers or treatment settings because I was unable to meet their needs, 5% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area, and 43% (n = 9) quit before finishing treatment.

Given that treatment completion always led to full remission, attrition appears to be the biggest challenge for this population. Therefore, my post will focus on the differences between those who completed treatment and therefore achieved full remission (aka “treatment completers”) versus those who did not (“treatment non-completers”).

Neither age at intake nor duration of illness before intake predicted treatment outcome. Both treatment completers and treatment non-completers averaged approximately 19 years old at intake, with an average duration of illness of 4.5 years.

Patients who completed treatment and achieved full remission did so through a variety of treatment modalities: 43% (n = 3) received individual therapy with no family involvement, 29% (n = 2) received Family-Based Treatment (FBT), 14% (n = 1) received individual therapy with a high level of family involvement, and 14% (n = 1) received individual therapy with moderate family involvement.

Patients receiving FBT (n = 7) were significantly less likely than those receiving individual therapy to quit treatment prematurely. Only 14% of patients receiving FBT (n = 1) quit treatment prematurely. I referred 43% of them (n = 3) to other treatment settings due to my inability to help them progress in treatment. Twenty-nine percent (n = 2) completed treatment with me and 14% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area and continued her treatment there.

Of the 14 patients who received individual therapy, 57% (n = 8) quit treatment prematurely. The remainder of patients either completed treatment and achieved full remission (36%; n = 5) or were referred to other treatment settings (7%; n = 1).

Interestingly, treatment completers did not differ from treatment non-completers on duration of treatment or on number of sessions attended. For treatment completers, duration of treatment ranged from 1-38 months, with an average duration of 10 months. For treatment non-completers, duration of treatment ranged from 1-28 months, with an average duration of 10 months. Treatment completers attended an average of 15 sessions, while treatment non-completers attended an average of 20 sessions. Thus, it appears that treatment completers did not necessarily remain in treatment longer, but rather reached remission more quickly. Anecdotally, I recall that a number of patients who quit treatment prematurely actually did quite well in their first 6-9 months of treatment and nearly reached remission, but then began to regress, got discouraged, and quit.

Rates of treatment completion and treatment outcome differed based on diagnosis. Amongst patients with BN, 22% (n = 2) completed treatment and achieved full remission, while 44% (n = 4) made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment. For patients with EDNOS, 42% completed treatment and achieved full remission, while 17% (n = 2) made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment.

Prior history of untreated Anorexia Nervosa (AN) was associated with treatment dropout and poor outcome. Only 18% (n = 2) of those with a prior history of AN completed their BN/EDNOS treatment with me, and both of those patients had been successfully treated for AN years before. None of the patients with a prior history of untreated AN completed their treatment with me.

Patients with a co-morbid disorder were much less likely to complete treatment. While two-thirds of patients in this sample (n = 14) had a co-morbid disorder, only 29% of them (n = 4) completed treatment and achieved remission.

Taking psychotropic medication during treatment was not related to treatment completion. Thirty-six percent of those who took medication during treatment (n = 4) completed treatment and achieved full remission, compared with 30% (n = 3) of those who did not take medication during treatment.

This sample of patients was 71% Caucasian (n = 15), 24% Hispanic (n = 5), and 5% multi-racial (n = 1). Hispanic patients were much more likely to complete treatment and achieve remission than Caucasian patients. Eighty percent (n = 4) of Hispanic patients in this sample completed treatment and achieved remission, compared with only 20% (n = 3) of Caucasian patients.

I work on a sliding fee scale, offering reduced rates based on patient’s ability to pay. Those who paid my full rate were more likely to complete treatment and achieve remission compared with those who paid a reduced rate. Forty-six percent of those who paid my full rate completed treatment (n = 6), compared with 25% of those who paid a reduced rate (n = 2).

Individuals with a history of intensive eating disorder treatment were less likely to complete treatment than those without such a history. Amongst treatment non-completers, 50% (n = 7) had been hospitalized for their eating disorder or a related psychiatric issue, 21% (n = 3) had a history of residential treatment, and 21% had been in partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient programs. Amongst treatment completers, 29% (n = 2) had a prior history of hospitalization, 14% (n = 1) had a history of residential treatment, and none had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment. The need for hospitalization during treatment with me was not related to treatment completion or treatment outcome.

In sum, the only variables that were related to treatment completion and remission were diagnosis of EDNOS and payment of my full fee for services. The following variables were associated with treatment non-completion: presence of a comorbid diagnosis, history of untreated AN, and prior history of intensive eating disorder treatment. Surprisingly, neither age at intake, duration of illness before intake, type of treatment received, number of sessions attended, duration of treatment, nor need for hospitalization during treatment were related to treatment completion.

These findings are specific to my practice and my patients, and are not intended to be generalized to other clinicians or other populations.

My next post will explore similarities and differences in treatment outcome among patients with AN, BN, and EDNOS.

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Thursday, July 11th, 2013

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa & EDNOS

Since I opened my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 10 patients with a diagnosis of Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and 16 patients with a diagnosis of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). All patients with a diagnosis of BN or EDNOS who attended an evaluation and at least one treatment session with me, and who are no longer in treatment with me, were included in this sample. Patients I evaluated who did not attend any treatment sessions with me were not included in this sample. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample either. Thus, the sample I will be describing includes a total of 21 patients: 12 with EDNOS and 9 with BN.

As you continue to read, bear in mind that these results are specific to my practice and my patients. These data should not be generalized to other clinicians or other patients.

All patients in this sample were female. Age at intake ranged from 14 – 28, with an average age of 19. Two thirds of the patients (n = 14) had a comorbid disorder, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder. Sixty-two percent of patients (n = 13) paid my full rate for services, while 38% (n = 8) paid a reduced rate.

For the purpose of calculating duration of illness, the onset of illness was defined as the period of time in which the patient began engaging in behavioral symptoms of eating disorders (e.g., restricting, bingeing, compulsive exercise, purging) as reported by the patient and/or parents. This is an important point to clarify, as symptoms of the illness typically begin long before a diagnosis is made. Length of illness before intake varied considerably, ranging from 6 months to 15 years, with an average of 4.5 years.

Over half of the patients in this sample (n = 11) had a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Some of them had been diagnosed with and treated for AN, while others met criteria for AN at one point but were not treated until their illness morphed into BN or EDNOS.

The patients in this sample with EDNOS (n = 12) presented with a range of different symptoms. Half of the patients (n = 6) struggled with some combination of restricting, bingeing, and purging. One quarter of patients (n = 3) presented primarily with binge eating. Seventeen percent (n = 2) had Type I diabetes and withheld insulin (known as “diabulimia”). Eight percent (n = 1) presented with body image distress associated with a history of AN.

Ninety percent of these patients (n = 19) had a history of some type of psychological treatment prior to meeting with me. The majority had been in individual therapy for their eating disorder at some point. Forty-three percent of the sample (n = 9) had been hospitalized for their eating disorder or for a related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me. Nineteen percent (n = 4) had a history of residential eating disorders treatment and 24% (n = 5) had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment.

One-third of the patients in this sample (n = 7) were treated with Family-Based Treatment (FBT). The remaining two-thirds (n = 14) were treated with individual Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), with varying degrees of family involvement. Of the individual therapy patients, 21% (n = 3) had a high level of family involvement, meaning that a family member participated in part of each session, shared information and impressions frequently, was kept apprised of weekly goals and progress, and maintained regular phone and email contact with me. Twenty-nine percent of individual therapy patients (n = 4) had a moderate level of family involvement, meaning that a family member participated in some sessions and had occasional phone and email contact with me. Seven percent of individual therapy patients (n = 1) had a low level of family involvement, meaning that a family member attended one or two sessions, and 43% of individual therapy patients (n = 6) had no family involvement whatsoever.

Parents were the most common family members involved in the patient’s treatment. However, some patients had boyfriends, husbands, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles involved depending on their living situation and individual circumstances. Whenever family members were involved with treatment, the focus was on providing them with psycho-education about eating disorders and enlisting them as sources of practical and emotional support for the patient at home. Family members were coached in providing meal support and in assisting their loved one in refraining from eating disorder behaviors such as bingeing and purging.

For patients who received individual therapy, my approach was primarily cognitive-behavioral (CBT). In addition, many patients were taught Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills such as distress tolerance and emotion regulation, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles such as thought defusion and values-based living.

Patients in this sample attended between 2 and 54 sessions, with an average of 18 sessions. Duration of treatment with me ranged from 1 month to 38 months, with a mean of duration of 10 months. Slightly more than half of the patients (n = 11) took psychotropic medication while in treatment with me. Three patients had to be hospitalized over the course of their treatment with me.

All patients were assigned an end-of-treatment status describing how they had progressed as of their final session with me. Outcomes were defined as follows:

1. Patient must meet ALL of the following criteria to be classified as in full remission:
a.) Patient gets regular menstrual periods.
b.) Patient is medically healthy, with good vital signs and blood work.
c.) Patient is completely abstinent from eating disorder behaviors, including restricting, binge/purge behaviors, laxatives, and diet pills.
d.) Patient eats regular, balanced meals most of the time or always, as reported by patient and parent (when applicable)
e.) No more than mild preoccupation with food, weight, body image, or fear of weight gain

2. Patient is classified as in physical remission if she meets criteria a, b, c, and d under full remission, but does not meet criteria e under full remission. Essentially, a patient in physical remission is physically well and free of eating disorder behaviors, but continues to be very distressed with her body image and/or preoccupied with thoughts about food and weight.

3. Patient is classified as having made significant progress if:
a.) Patient has made significant improvement in dietary habits (e.g., eats regular, balanced meals and snacks) as reported by patient and parents (when applicable)
b.) Patient is medically healthy, with good vital signs and blood work
c.) Frequency of eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging) has been reduced to once per week or less.

4. Patient is classified as having made some progress if:
a.) Patient has improved dietary habits somewhat since intake, but needs more improvement
b.) Patient has reduced the frequency of eating disorder behaviors (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging) since intake, but still engages in these behaviors more than once per week.

5. Patient is classified as having made no progress if she has not improved dietary habits and/or has not reduced the frequency of eating disorder behaviors.

6. Patient is classified as regressed if she meets ANY of the following criteria:
a.) Dietary intake has declined since intake (e.g., more skipped meals, less variety, less nutritional balance)
b.) Frequency of binge/purge behaviors has increased since intake
c.) Patient has become medically unstable

Thirty-three percent of patients (n = 7) completed treatment, 43% (n = 9) quit treatment prematurely, 19% (n = 4) were referred to other providers or treatment settings because I was unable to meet their needs, and 5% (n = 1) moved to another geographic area during treatment.

One-hundred percent of the patients who completed treatment (n = 7) reached full remission. For those who completed treatment, known henceforth as “treatment completers,” duration of treatment ranged from one month to 38 months, with an average duration of 10 months. Number of sessions attended for treatment completers ranged from 3 – 45, with an average of 15 sessions. In other words, the typical patient with BN or EDNOS who completed treatment achieved full remission in 15 sessions over the course of 10 months.

Unfortunately, the attrition rate was very high, so these treatment completers comprised only one-third of the full sample. Of the 14 patients who discontinued prematurely, 43% (n = 6) made significant progress, another 43% (n = 6) made some progress, 7% (n = 1) made no progress, and 7% regressed (n = 1).

My next post will involve a detailed examination of the differences between patients who completed treatment and reached full remission versus those who discontinued treatment prematurely and did not reach full remission.

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Top 10 Psychologists in Coral Gables 2015

Sarah Katherine Ravin's Practice is ranked in the top Coral Gables, FL Psychology practices.

Top 10 Psychologists in Coral Gables 2015