A common misconception about eating disorders is that they are not serious illnesses. Partly because of that, roughly 9 out of 10 people with eating disorders either never receive treatment or go completely unnoticed.
Even among those who seek professional help and fully recover, about a third will experience one or more relapses. Below, let’s dive into the complexities and psychology behind eating disorders, what eating disorder treatment looks like, and why disorders are so difficult to treat.
A complex picture
Although there is no exact cause of eating disorders, researchers have found that can arise from a variety of factors, including mental health, body image, biological factors, and genetics. Likewise, they can affect anyone—regardless of weight, age, gender, race, or other demographics. However, they are most often diagnosed in adolescence and young adulthood.
Why? In adolescents and young adults, changes in the body happen quickly and can trigger many negative thoughts and emotions. In fact, studies show that when it comes to body image, weight is one of the biggest concerns among adolescents and young people.
Therefore, body image is a huge part of the psychology behind eating disorders. For many people, this can lead to body dysmorphia — a distinct mental health condition in which a person becomes fixated on their body and their perceived flaws.
Digging into psychology
Another common one the misconception about eating disorders is that they are only about food; while some individuals do obsess over food, calories, and weight, disordered behaviors such as fasting, purging, binge eating, and excessive exercise are often due to deeper psychological factors such as feeling powerless.
People who feel a general lack of control in their lives can use these disordered eating habits to regain some semblance of control. In turn, this can create a fear of losing control that only serves to increase the severity of the disordered behavior.
Because many people who have an eating disorder also have a distorted self-image, a negative body image, or a strong fear of gaining weight, many eating disorder treatment programs revolve around various types of therapy.
Treatment of eating disorders
Now, the most established methods of treatment in the treatment of eating disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT).
Especially for adolescent patients, many treatment plans will also include family-based treatment (FBT), which includes the patient’s parents and immediate family members. In some cases, parents of children with eating disorders may feel at a loss as to how to help their child; therefore, this method of therapy is often extremely helpful for successful recovery.
There is also different levels of treatment, including outpatient services, intensive outpatient programs, partial hospitalization, home treatment, and inpatient hospitalization. Depending on the severity of a person’s eating disorder, these programs are customized to best support them and put them on the path to full recovery.
Why treatment is difficult
However, many who complete an eating disorder recovery program remain resistant to treatment. There are many reasons for this, but a common one has to do with meal plans.
Most eating disorder treatment centers have nutritionist or nutritionist on their team to create meal plans based on the patient’s needs. This can be very triggering for people with an eating disorder – especially early in treatment – because all their thinking is still centered around food.
Unfortunately, after patients are discharged from treatment centers, there high risk of relapse. Because weight gain can cause severe distress, many of those who experience weight regain during treatment will eventually re-engage in disordered eating behaviors.
It’s important to remember that lapses and relapse are part of the recovery process. Knowing the signs of relapse and how to get help are some of the most important things to remember as you recover.
New approaches to treatment
Considering both treatment resistance and relapse rates, treatment centers are reversing their approaches to focus on harm reduction and minimizing how much the disease affects the patient. This has been shown to improve the way patients function in their daily lives and allow them to better ‘see the bigger picture’.
Most treatment centers still incorporate multiple types of therapy depending on the patient’s needs, as this has been proven to be the most successful method. And as mental health medications and therapies advance, so will the ability to create treatment plans customized for each individual patient.
More programs now focus on more fundamental methods such as harm reduction, living with an eating disorder, and maintaining a healthy and happy lifestyle after treatment. Although many people with eating disorders will still not get help, finding the right treatment plan and provider that meets your needs is the first step to successful recovery.