What Forms of Treatment are Effective for Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, excessive weight loss and negative body image. Anorexia sufferers generally view themselves as overweight, even if they’re dangerously underweight. They tend to constantly monitor their weight, avoid eating certain types of foods and severely restrict their calories.
Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder), are biologically-based, serious mental illnesses, not fads, phases or lifestyle choices.
How is Anorexia Diagnosed?
Medical and mental health professionals typically administer a few tests and examinations to confirm a diagnosis, and to rule out other medical causes for weight loss. These tests may include:
- Physical exam. This may include measuring your height and weight; checking your vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature; checking your skin and nails for problems; listening to your heart and lungs; and examining your abdomen.
- Lab tests. These may include a complete blood count (CBC) and more-specialized blood tests to check electrolytes and protein as well as the functioning of your liver, kidney and thyroid. A urinalysis may also be incuded.
- Psychological evaluation. A doctor or mental health professional will likely ask about your thoughts, feelings and eating habits. You may also be asked to complete psychological self-assessment questionnaires.
- Other studies. X-rays may be taken to check your bone density, check for stress fractures or broken bones, or check for pneumonia or heart problems. Electrocardiograms may be done to look for heart irregularities.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to be diagnosed as having Anorexia Nervosa a person must display:
- Persistent restriction of energy intake leading to significantly low body weight (in context of what is minimally expected for age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health).
- Either an intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, or persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain (even though significantly low weight).
- Disturbance in the way one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body shape and weight on self-evaluation, or persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight.
Effectively Treating Your Anorexia
Successful treatment for anorexia generally requires a team approach—doctors, mental health professionals and a dietitian/nutritionist, all with experience in eating disorders. Ongoing therapy and nutrition education are highly important to continued recovery. Here are several components which may be part of effectively treating your anorexia:
If your life is in immediate danger, you may need treatment in a hospital emergency room for such issues as a heart rhythm disturbance, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances or a psychiatric emergency. Hospitalization may be required for medical complications, severe psychiatric problems, severe malnutrition or continued refusal to eat.
Because of the variety of complications anorexia causes, you may need monitoring of your vital signs, hydration level and electrolytes, as well as related physical conditions.
—Restoring a healthy weight
The first goal of treatment is getting you back to a safe and healthy weight. You can’t recover from anorexia without returning to a healthy weight and learning proper nutrition. Those involved in this process may include:
- Your doctor, who can provide medical care and supervise your calorie needs and weight gain
- A psychologist or other mental health professional, who can work with you to develop behavioral strategies to help you return to a healthy weight
- A dietitian/nutritionist, who can offer guidance getting back to healthy patterns of eating, including providing specific meal plans and calorie requirements that help you meet your weight goals
—Major types of therapy
These types of therapy may be beneficial for anorexia:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on negative patterns of thinking as well as beliefs that contribute to these thought patterns. CBT teaches participants skills that allow them to identify problematic beliefs as well as healthy ways to cope with emotions. CBT has effectively helped those struggling with eating disorders or mood disorders and decrease destructive behaviors. CBT may include educational components and the development of a meal plan, as well as addressing various facets, such as familial, psychological, and societal factors.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of psychotherapy that connects cognitive and behavioral methods as an approach to coping with painful emotions. The focus of this therapy is usually on individuals who react to emotional circumstances with extreme behaviors. DBT techniques can be beneficial for eating disorder treatment in that they allow individuals to better deal with conflict and stress while gaining increased control over negative thoughts and emotions.
- Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its main form of communication and therapeutic healing. Clients who utilize art therapy in treatment are guided by a professional in artistically expressing personal stories, thoughts, and/or feelings. Types of art therapy that might be included are painting, clay making, sculpting, and drawing. Art therapy can be an important part of treatment for those suffering from eating disorders as it allows a creative outlet for expression and healing.
- Dance Movement Therapy is a therapeutic form of healing that allows participants to become involved in an alternate way of coping and expressing emotion. Dance therapy has been proven an effective form of psychotherapy for various disorders, including learning disabilities and mood disorders. In regards to eating disorders, dance therapy can be influential in healing through guided movements and expressions.
- Equine Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses horses as an aide for emotional growth. Equine therapy is based on the premise that the bond that can grow between humans and animals will allow for emotional healing to occur. Activities that might be involved are care for and grooming of the animal and basic exercises guided by a horse specialist. Clients who use equine therapy during treatment might have increased self-esteem and body image, particularly as the care for an animal has been shown to be an empowering experience.
- Family-based therapy. This is the only evidence-based treatment for teenagers with anorexia. Because the teenager with anorexia is unable to make good choices about eating and health while in the grips of this serious condition, this therapy mobilizes parents to help their child with re-feeding and weight restoration until the child can make good choices about health.
No medications are approved to treat anorexia because none have been found to work very well. However, antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can help treat other mental health disorders you may also have, such as depression or anxiety.
Getting the Help You Need
One of the biggest obstacles to treating anorexia is simply admitting you have a problem and that you need help. If you’re reading this article because you or someone you love is struggling, we can help.
At Honey Lake Clinic, our experienced staff, licensed therapists, psychologists, and psychiatric specialists understand that effective treatment for anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders requires a multifaceted, faith-based approach, involving healing of the body, mind, and spirit. Our unique treatment programs specifically and deeply address all three spheres, offering each client his or her greatest chance at wholeness and transformative growth.
This holistic approach and a combination of key factors makes our mental health program at Honey Lake Clinic different from the others in the country.
You’ll benefit from Honey Lake’s—
- Integration of a Bible-based approach and sound psychological principles
- Experienced, compassionate, and highly trained clinical staff
- Individualized treatment with a low caseload of patients per therapist
- Practical curriculum focused on decision-making mechanics and skills
- Emphasis on holistic healing of the mind, body, and spirit
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