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Establishing A Support System for the Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa

When someone receives a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, it’s natural for them to experience worry and fear about the future. It’s an extremely dangerous mental health disorder and treatment can be difficult and extensive. For those reasons, treatment of anorexia nervosa should include some aspect of family support or that of a close-knit group of friends. The anorexia nervosa treatment process takes thorough planning, with a support system of loved ones and therapists in place when the individual moves on to aftercare.

A long-term recovery without a support structure is possible, but it’s much easier when the patient has educated, caring, and responsible people there to hold them up.

While the program for treating a person chooses to attend is crucial, what they do following recovery is just as important.  When seeking out an anorexia nervosa recovery center for your loved one, make sure you take into account how comprehensive their aftercare and support programs are.

Anorexia Nervosa: Signs and Symptoms

Anorexia nervosa, which leads all mental health disorders in causing death, is a potentially life-threatening behavioral disorder characterized by consistent and pathological restriction of food intake, severe weight loss and inability to maintain body weight, body dysmorphia (flawed or distorted body image), and occasionally abuse of medications like amphetamines or laxatives.

Based on fear of gaining weight and attempting to exert control over their lives, people with anorexia nervosa make great efforts to restrict the number of calories they eat. They may also engage in excessive or compulsive exercise, beyond the point of self-injury.  Although the common perception is that anorexia nervosa only affects young women, this mental health disorder can affect people of all ages, genders, races, and social backgrounds.

What Are the Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa?

Each person has a unique experience with anorexia nervosa, but several diagnostic criteria are common in most cases. Anorexia nervosa may also present as atypical anorexia nervosa, in which the individual does not reach a dangerously low body weight:

  • Refusal to eat certain foods or pushing foods around on the plate
  • Frequent, extreme dieting
  • Avoiding public meals or finding excuses not to eat
  • Obsessing over the number of calories taken in
  • Constant weighing and counting calories
  • Only eating in private
  • The inability to maintain a medically appropriate body weight
  • Ceasing to menstruate
  • Low energy, fatigue, and feeling cold constantly
  • Sleeplessness or insomnia
  • Avoiding public meals and restaurants

It’s Important to Act Quickly If a Diagnosis Is Made

The longer someone lives with anorexia nervosa, the harder it can be to counteract the disorder. That may seem like a minor problem, but anorexia nervosa is a dangerous disorder that can cause death. If it is ignored or goes untreated, the health risks can pile up and become insurmountable. People with anorexia nervosa also tend to experience other forms of mental health disorders as well, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation.

That’s why it’s essential for recovery thatfamilies reach out for help from an eating disorder treatment center or psychiatric professional sooner rather than later if they suspect anorexia nervosa is present. As the client’s support system is helping to locate the right anorexia nervosa recovery center for their loved ones, they should look for a comprehensive treatment program that includes evidence-based therapies like CBT as well as group and family therapy sessions that extend a support system around them.

Anorexia Nervosa Aftercare: How to Build a Support System

Most treatment facilities for eating disorders have a pre-planned aftercare system in place and will get their clients’ families involved early during the treatment process. Family and significant others are important members of the treatment team. Family work at Monte Nido encompasses family therapy sessions, family meals, and individualized experiences. Each client’s therapist helps to establish specific relationship and family goals on a weekly basis. Individual family sessions are scheduled regularly and adjusted accordingly for each client’s unique family needs. If family members or significant others cannot travel to the facility, we set up phone or video conference sessions. Additionally, family programming is scheduled monthly that includes psychoeducation, interpersonal process, and meal exposure opportunities.

Often, family counseling is part of the weekly routine in residential or day treatment, and the education they receive greatly improves their ability to support their loved ones after graduation. Several studies, like this one from NBCI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), have shown that family involvement greatly improves the outcomes of eating disorder treatment. These findings are n line with the philosophy of “holistic” treatment, i.e. the concept that the whole person needs to be treated in a mental health setting.

AN eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa can’t be treated like a common cold or a headache; you can’t simply take a few aspirins and expect the outcome to be positive. Instead, the individual’s emotional, physical, and psychosocial health must all be treated, For eating disorders, a person’s relationship and family dynamics are key causal factors, and they also can act as triggers for disordered behaviors. Because of this, any treatment program hoping to assist in a full recovery must take that into account. Program elements for family therapy include sessions with the client and family together, where the family dynamic and shared attitudes about food, eating, and body image can be explored.

Family members may also choose to attend educational sessions without their loved ones present. These can help them better understand how eating disorders develop, signs of potential relapses, and how their actions can perpetuate them. They may also learn about topics to avoid discussing, or how to use judgment-free language when talking about food, eating, and body image. Meal planning and nutrition are also covered, especially for parents of an adolescent client who will be sharing/preparing meals.

Choosing a Treatment Center for Anorexia Nervosa That Takes the Family Into Account

Eating disorder treatment programs must ensure the client is medically and psychologically stable as their first priority of course. However, to enable long-term recovery and provide the best outcomes, provisions must be made to establish a stable recovery plan their helps prevent relapses and sets the foundation for a continued recovery. People looking for treatment should always consider how to continue their recovery after residential treatment is completed.

Heading home and back into a regular routine without a solid aftercare plan can greatly increase the odds of relapse, undoing the progress made during active treatment. Almost every kind of behavioral health disorder can be triggered by stress or other difficult situations. With training on well-being practices, meal planning, and other support methods, the family members of the recovered individual can become the bedrock of a healthier, happier lifestyle.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.