As one of the most complicated and dangerous mental health illnesses, anorexia nervosa is characterized by an obsession with avoiding caloric intake and a distorted body image which leads people to believe they are overweight even when medically at the point of emaciation. People with this disorder will avoid most food and meals, subsisting on diet foods and drink in very limited qualities. While anorexia nervosa is known to predominately affect young women, it occurs in all genders and ages, making any attempt at a “one-size-fits-all” treatment program problematic.

Although family and friends may constantly tell them they are too skinny, a person with anorexia nervosa have such a distorted body image of themselves they simply cannot see what others see. This insidious distortion of their self-image and the behaviors that stem from it can cause a situation that required a combined medical, psychiatric, and therapeutic treatment program. Most importantly, the therapy methods involved should be aimed at correcting the flawed thinking and root causes of disordered behavior. So, if someone receives a diagnosis, what are the appropriate treatment options?

Psychotherapy Types for Anorexia Nervosa

Individual Therapy

The most time-tested and direct approach to anorexia nervosa treatment is individual therapy. One-on-one therapy sessions between people with anorexia nervosa and their therapists provide a comfortable environment in which the therapist and client can explore the root causes of an eating disorder. This provides a base from which clients can reform their thought patterns. Individual therapy is also necessary to teach clients how to recognize distorted beliefs about their appearance.

Family-based Therapy

No person exists in a vacuum. People with anorexia nervosa are no different – their family’s behaviors and attitudes about food and eating have direct influence. Family-based therapy works well because it can help eliminate enabling or codependent behavior on the family’s part, as well as providing training for post-treatment support. In the case of younger people, involving the parents in treatment can help them understand the potentially dysfunctional roles they assume in the family that may contribute to eating disorder behaviors. In fact, family-only sessions where the client is not present have been proven effective in setting up a long-term support system.

One well-respected form of family-based therapy is called the Maudsley Method. The family members of individuals with anorexia nervosa are trained to take responsibility for monitoring and assisting their loved one’s food intake and eating habits. There have been four empirically controlled trials conducted so far that investigate the effectiveness of the Maudsley Method. In two of these trials (Le Grange, 1992 and Eisler, 2000), the study revealed that 70 percent of adolescents with anorexia nervosa returned to their medically-approved weight following completion of a recovery program.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

An evidence-based, extremely focused form of individual therapy, CBT is highly effective at helping people with anorexia nervosa identify and alter their disordered behavior. A person-focused, time-limited kind of psychotherapy, CBT is a back-and-forth between a therapist trained in this technique and the client. During a session, the client will objectively examine their won thought patterns with guidance from the therapist, eventually recognizing that their self-image and behaviors are irrational and dangerous.

CBT is aimed at using logic and exchanges between individuals to overcome the resistance many clients have to changing their thinking and behavior. Cognitive-behavioral therapy gets helps clients understand that their thoughts are distorted by having them participate in assessments of their eating disorder. CBT therapists also include techniques that give clients a new sense of hope about treatment by gently but firmly encouraging patients to take ownership of their recovery program.

Any Option Is Better Than None

Any of the methods listed above can be effective, individually or in combination with each other (multidisciplinary treatment programs are generally ideal for a complete recovery). As with any mental health disorder, early action makes a full recovery more likely.  The important thing is to seek help – whether that is individual therapy, family therapy, CBT or some combination of them. Anorexia nervosa can be overcome; don’t hesitate to reach out.

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