Treatments for Anorexia Nervosa
Most people with eating disorders, especially in the beginning, resist treatment and behavior change.They cling to the illusion that if they just lose enough weight, they will feel good about themselves, improve their lives, and enjoy self-confidence and success.
After a while, however, they begin to understand that the supposed benefits of thinness are only an illusion that will never bring them happiness. Starving, stuffing, purging, and other self-destructive behaviors will never lead to peace and a meaningful life. When people get to this point, and when they begin to look for better ways to build meaningful lives, recovery becomes a real possibility.
Unfortunately, even then there are challenges and obstacles to progress. Between 20 and 30 percent of people who enter treatment drop out too soon and relapse. Even those who stick with it usually have slips and lapses, leaving them discouraged, demoralized and feeling like failures. Wanting a quick and easy solution to their problems, they too often give up when they find that recovery can take many months to several years of hard work before they are free of their destructive behaviors and in control of their lives. Recovery requires major commitments to (1) get into treatment, (2) stay in treatment, (3) make necessary lifestyle changes, and (4) resolve the underlying psychological and emotional issues that led to starving, binge eating, and/or purging in the first place.
Is recovery possible?
Yes, eating disorders are treatable, and lots of people recover from them. Recovery, however, as noted above, is a difficult process that can take seven to ten years or even longer. Some people do better than others and make faster progress. The folks who do best, work with physicians and counselors who help them resolve both the medical and psychological issues that contribute to, or result from, disordered eating. (International Journal of Eating Disorders, 1997; 22:339 and Eating Disorders, 2000; 8:189)
About 80 percent of people with eating disorders who seek treatment either recover completely or make significant progress. Sadly, the rest remain chronic sufferers or they die.
What is recovery?
Recovery is much more than the abandonment of starving and stuffing. At minimum it includes the following:
What is the best treatment for an eating disorder?
Because many factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder, and since every person's situation is different, the "best treatment" must be custom tailored for each individual. The process begins with an evaluation by a physician or counselor. Recommendations include any or all of the following. In general, the more components included in the treatment plan, the faster the person will make progress.
How long does it take to recover?
A few people who refuse professional treatment do eventually recover, but it may take several years or even decades. Most make little or no progress without help. Up to 20 percent do not survive.
People who do get into treatment, and stick with it, in general do much better. About half recover completely. Another 25 percent make significant progress. Unfortunately, the last 25 percent remain chronic sufferers, even with treatment, and a few die from consequences of their disordered behaviors.
With treatment, a few people recover in a year or less. For the vast majority, though, treatment and the recovery process take three to seven years, and in some cases even longer. Recovery takes however long it takes. For most people, changing entrenched food behaviors and resolving the issues that underlie them is a formidable challenge, perhaps the greatest challenge they will ever face.
Usually treatment is more intensive at the beginning: several therapy sessions a week and perhaps even hospitalization. As progress is made, sessions are scheduled less frequently until, at the end, there may be only two or three a year.
Relapses, especially in the beginning, are to be expected. The person learns to cope with life without depending on food and weight manipulation but then encounters a problem. The new coping skills are overwhelmed, and the person, feeling frantic, resorts to old familiar patterns: i.e., binge eating, starving, or purging. A common scenario involves a person receiving treatment, leaving treatment, being successful for a while, relapsing, and then returning to treatment. The cycle may be repeated several times before recovery is stable. There should be no shame in these lapses. They are learning experiences that point out where more work needs to be done.
An outcome study at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin indicates that in the case of anorexia nervosa, the longer the person remains in a hospital program, and the closer his/her weight is to normal at discharge, the greater the chances of long-term, stable recovery. If you want a copy of the study, call 1.800.767.4411, extension 310.
Where to find help
Finding a counselor, physician, and treatment team that you trust, and with whom you can work effectively, is an important part of the recovery process. Here are some tips to get you started.
Questions to ask a counselor before you begin working with him/her
Your therapist or counselor will, in a sense, be your employee. You, or your insurance company, are paying him or her, so you might as well shop around for a good fit. If you want to work with someone who is warm and understanding, don't pick a person who works primarily in a corporate setting in problem-solving mode. Likewise, if you are ready for an action plan, you may not want a counselor who spends a lot of time examining feelings and emotions. The following are just some of the questions you can ask your potential "employee."
The goal of recovery: a healthy, authentic human being
People often begin an eating disorder by dieting, thinking that if they lose weight, they will become self-confident and feel better about themselves. But it doesn't work that way. Becoming a worthy person takes a lot of hard work, including building a history of meaningful achievements and successful problem solving. Becoming authentic is never achieved by taking unhealthy shortcuts that lead to poor health, ruined relationships, depression, obsession, anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing.
Authentic human beings may be attractive -- there is no law that says they have to be ugly -- but physical attributes are their least important qualities. Authentic human beings make a lasting impact, quietly or dramatically, on people they meet. They have personal presence. They are solid, intelligent, humorous, sexy and full of life. They are reliable, strong, confident and competent. They are respected, and they respect themselves. This is the goal of treatment -- not just to eat normally, important as that is, but also to develop into a person of worth and substance.
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