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Social Media: A Catalyst for Eating Disorder Recovery?


 
We live in a media driven culture with an endless supply of TV shows, internet sites, and phone apps to keep us busy every minute. These platforms are used to deliver messages meant to persuade, inspire, and entertain. Many of these messages contain images of men and women airbrushed to perfection….and it is that very image of perfection that haunts us as we study our own bodies and make comparisons.
 
To say that the internet has influenced body image is an understatement. In recent years, the rise of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites has glorified eating disorders and praised the behaviors that keep sufferers locked in the illness. The Social Issues Research Centre (www.sirc.org) reports that these “pro-ana” websites target individuals who consider their eating disorders to be lifestyles, something to maintain and celebrate. Users share tips on how to engage behaviors and provide support for each other’s illnesses. For individuals who are in recovery, websites like this can be seriously detrimental. Some people in recovery refuse to engage in social media at all, citing the prevalence of hashtags like #thighgap and #thinspogram as just a few of many reasons to shelter themselves from the social media revolution. USA Today (www.usatoday.com) shares the story of Donna, who is in recovery from bulimia. Afraid to expose herself to the kinds of comparisons that fueled her illness, Donna has decided to stay away from popular social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
 
While it’s clear that social media and pro-eating disorder websites have played a part in our global obsession with obtaining perfection, more and more websites  dedicated to positive body image and recovery are beginning to pop up. Someone searching for eating disorder tips may stumble upon a recovery website or blog and be drawn into a story of hope….leading to the inspiration to begin recovery. The National Eating Disorders Association (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) shares the story of one woman who came across the NEDA website in her search for a pro-eating disorder community….a lucky accident that turned out to be the catalyst for her recovery. Nonprofit organizations dedicated to awareness and advocacy use the power of the internet to spread positive body image messages. Eating disorder treatment centers are also getting involved in the awareness movement, offering blogs, webinars, and professional events designed to educate and inspire.
 
Instagram is also proving to be a powerful recovery tool. An online photo-sharing service, Instagram users can visually communicate their lives to their followers. Some individuals in recovery have turned their Instagram accounts into recovery accounts. The Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com) describes this type of account as a place where users can gain support while maintaining as much anonymity as they would like. Some people don’t use their real names, and others find that it’s easier to open up and share initially in an online environment. Recovery accounts document the progress users are making through pictures of meals, inspirational messages, and even pictures of users’ bodies as they work toward weight restoration. Support from followers during the recovery journey can be motivating and provide comfort during difficult periods.
 
Although social media can be a positive recovery tool, users must be vigilant and pay attention to their triggers. Any concerning thoughts and behaviors should be taken seriously and addressed with a treatment team.
 
 
Totally In Control: The Rise of Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia Websites. Social Issues Research Centre, www.sirc.org
 
Rojas, M. (2014). Social Media Helps Fuel Some Eating Disorders. USA Today, www.usatoday.com
 
Kay, J. (2014). How Social Media Led Me to Recovery. National Eating Disorders Association, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
 
Mirhashem, M. (2015). Overcoming an Eating Disorder with Instagram. The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com
 

 

Spirituality and Eating Disorder Recovery: Rediscovering Meaning in Chaos

Eating disorders represent a emotional and cognitive struggle of some kind,  be it trauma, low self-esteem, poor body image, bullying….clients present with many different root causes of their disorder. A client’s spirit is suffering and a person tends to have a breakdown in their spirituality. The one underlying theme is the difficulty in managing the most uncomfortable feelings. The eating disorder and one’s spirituality are often at competing ends. The eating disorder serves as a coping method that presents as a friend, a confidant, a powerful secret, or a god that needs to be obeyed and the eating disorder appears at the time the client needs it most. In a storm of chaos and fear and inconsistency, the eating disorder swoops in and appears to give the feeling of rescue that the client feels temporarily from the distress.

Michelle Lelwica (2010) shares that while the client is focused on creating a “good” body or engaging in eating disorder behaviors like restricting or purging, the inner life is being ignored. No matter how thin the client gets, no matter how filling the binge, there is an eternal sense of emptiness and hunger that is never satisfied. All of the crises that pile up in life, all of the hurts and trauma, drive a wedge through the true self. Big questions like “What is important in my life” and “How do I understand my life’s purpose” cannot be answered when the soul is entrenched in an eating disorder. There is simply no energy left for living. Recovery becomes a spiritual journey as clients attempt to access their pain and face it with the help of a higher power.

Randy Hardman and Michael Berrett (2015) explain that many people with an eating disorder have had some degree of personal spirituality in their lives. Some have participated in religious observations and others may have felt connected to yoga or nature or a meditation practice. Despite this, during the course of the eating disorder these connections were lost. Feelings of unworthiness creep in as the eating disorder, which at one point served a purpose, becomes harder and harder to sustain. Indeed, eating disorders cause sufferers to chase false pursuits that ultimately replace spiritual connection. Hardman and Berrett list these false pursuits:

  • False sense of control
  • False form of communication about pain and suffering
  • False sense of being the exception or exceptional
  • False crusade for evidence against self
  • False pursuit of perfection
  • False form of comfort and safety
  • False identity
  • False compensation for the past
  • False attempt to avoid personal responsibility
  • False pursuit of approval

Eating disorders may represent some or all of these falsehoods for clients. Richards et al (1997) state that eating disorder clients often have difficulty letting go and having faith, despite their spiritual background, leading to a worship of these falsehoods in pursuit of a sense of control and well-being. Along the way the eating disorder gains control of every aspect of their lives, rendering clients powerless when all they were seeking all along was a powerful sense of being good enough.

Not all clinicians work with spirituality in treatment with their clients, but it is a significant aspect of recovery that should not be avoided. Clients who wish to regain their spiritual connections, or foster connections for the very first time, can do so in the safety of the therapeutic alliance. Eating disorders are very hard to give up because it is difficult to remember what life was like beforehand and next to impossible to consider what life might be like in recovery. There is so much unknown and that is often one of the biggest barriers to recovery. Spiritual exploration during treatment can help clients resolve any negative impacts their spiritual pursuits had in the past and move forward with new resolve to take care of their physical, emotional, and spiritual selves.

Lelwica, M. (2010). The Spiritual Dimensions of Recovering from an Eating Disorder. Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com

Hardman, R. and Berrett, M. (2015). Eating Disorder Recovery: A Spiritual Perspective. BYU Idaho Counseling Center, www.byui.edu

Richards, P., Hardman, R., Frost, H., Berrett, M., Clark-Sly, J., and Anderson, D.
Spiritual issues and interventions in the treatment of patients with eating disorders. Eating Disorders: Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 5(4), pp. 261-279

Treating the Family System

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When an eating disorder strikes an individual, his or her entire family is affected. According to an article by Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP, 87% of eating disorder patients are children and adolescents under the age of 20. As many in this age group still live at home, the eating disorder develops and plays out within the family dynamic. It often takes on a life of its own and can be the cause of many battles at meal times, family gatherings, holiday events, and can even affect extended family and school environments. Family therapy is an essential part of eating disorder treatment and is necessary to ensure everyone who is a part of the family system is cared for.

The Family System Theory

Developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, family systems theory posits that the family is a unit and the emotional connections fostered by thoughts, feelings, and actions create an interdependent environment. This interconnectedness helps the family to become cohesive and supportive of its members. If there is unrest and tension, emotional connections can become more stressful. If there is a member of the family who tends to take on the emotions of the other members and may take on an accommodating role, leading to overwhelm and isolation. This is the family member who may become more susceptible to addictions, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and illness.

There are eight concepts to the family systems theory:

  • Triangles: A three-person relationship system
  • Differentiation of self: Variation in how people are susceptible to pressures to conform to the group
  • Nuclear family emotional system: Four basic relationship patterns (marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of children, emotional distance)
  • Family projection process: The way parents transmit their emotional issues to children
  • Multigenerational transmission: Differences in differentiation across generations
  • Emotional cutoff: Managing emotional issues by cutting off family members
  • Sibling position: Impact of sibling position on behavior and development
  • Societal emotional process: Emotional systems govern behavior on the societal level

Family systems theory can be used to help clinicians understand the dynamics of the family presenting to work through one member’s eating disorder.

Family Involvement in Eating Disorder Treatment

Comprehensive treatment plans at all levels of care will involve family therapy. Center for Discovery residential programs involve the family weekly in a therapeutic way, not only in family therapy but also at meal times by facilitating therapeutic family meals. The purpose of these activities is to observe family dynamics at meal times and in social situations in order to best prepare the family for realignment and a return to balanced interconnectedness.
Some clients benefit from a type of family therapy called Family Based Therapy (FBT, also known as Maudsley). This outpatient approach, which places the refeeding process in the hands of the parents and moves the family through phases of treatment as recovery develops, has proven to be very successful for adolescents with anorexia.

In outpatient settings, family therapy is usually recommended in conjunction with individual therapy, nutrition services, and group work. As the eating disordered member reintegrates back to the system after being away at treatment, therapy is needed to help the family adjust once again. An eating disorder has the potential to isolate family members from one another, create discord in the system, and indeed can be either sustained or eliminated depending on the dynamics of the family system. It is important for clinicians and parents to know that parents do not cause eating disorders. The entire system needs attention and support to thrive again.

Natenshon, A. Family Treatment is Cornerstone of Effective Care for Eating Disordered Children. Treating Eating Disorders, www.abigailnatenshon.com

The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. www.thebowencenter.org

Contemplating Change: Moving Beyond an Eating Disorder

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Recovery from an eating disorder requires an incredibly courageous step into the unknown. It requires relinquishing control and moving through the stages of change to reach acceptance and health. This is easier said than done and takes time. One of the first steps is identifying what purpose the eating disorder serves and therefore what emotional needs it is meeting. Only then can the person begin to find healthy ways to meet those needs and heal.

What is the Function?

Very often, people with eating disorders find themselves in life circumstances that leave them feeling like they’ve lost control. Maybe there’s been trauma or a loss, or maybe bullying at school or a lack of identity. The eating disorder swoops in at these vulnerable times, offering a lifeline in the form of a sense of power and control, a numbing of painful emotions, something to feel accomplished about….a savior that ends up creating devastation and life-threatening complications.

Stages of Change

Moving beyond resistance and denial to contemplation and action feels impossible when the eating disorder is in full swing. Many people arrive at treatment at the urging of family and friends without the slightest idea themselves of why they are there. The stages of change put a timeline to this process, and it is possible to envision when one might arrive at identifying and challenging the purpose the eating disorder serves.

Precontemplation: People in this stage tend to be resistant to change. They are in treatment for others. They feel hopeless.

Contemplation: Recognizes there’s a problem (and perhaps now is aware of the purpose the eating disorder serves) and begins to anticipate an imminent change.

Preparation: People sometimes experience ambivalence in this stage as they prepare for change but still aren’t 100% convinced it’s a good idea.

Action: Time and energy are committed. Behaviors begin to change.

Maintenance: Continued action is required to maintain recovery. It is a fluid process with frequent adjustments.

Letting Go

A person in the throes of an eating disorder truly believes that the illness brings value to their life. It likely has shown merit at some point, in the form of the purpose it serves in the person’s life. For example, someone who has experienced life in an alcoholic home may now feel in control for once….amid all that chaos, the eating disorder created a way for the person to feel competent, in control, and superior. In this case, the eating disorder creates control where there was chaos and a false sense of self-esteem where there was self-hate and uncertainty. It becomes difficult to build a case against the eating disorder when it has brought some semblance of order to the person’s life. Recovery begins when the person recognizes the purpose served and can accept that what once felt like control has now become out of control and not sustainable. An article by Emily Troscianko (2010) poignantly states: “Somewhere along this road….You may come to see that exerting control is simply no longer what’s required of you.” Letting go catalyzes action, and action leads to recovery.

Troscianko, E. (2010). Why Control Won’t Bring You Happiness. Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com