Externalizing an Eating Disorder: When, Why, and How Do You Do That and Who is “Ed” Anyway?

Externalizing an Eating Disorder [image description: drawing of a child reigning in a monster]
Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash
Externalizing an eating disorder is a therapeutic strategy that became more widely known through Jenni Schaefer’s book Life Without Ed, cowritten with her therapist Thom Rutledge. The book summarizes Jenni’s recovery from an eating disorder.

Jenni describes how in her treatment she learned to personify the eating disorder as “Ed,” an abusive boyfriend. As explained in the blurb on her website, “By thinking of her eating disorder as a unique personality separate from her own, [she] was able to break up with Ed once and for all.” The book details the various exercises she used in her recovery, including creating a formal “divorce decree” with the eating disorder and pushing back on him at every turn. In an Academy for Eating Disorders tweetchat (2014) on the topic, Jenni Schaefer tweeted, “Ed could say whatever he wanted. To be in recovery, I had to make the decision to disagree with and disobey him.”

This “externalization” strategy is borrowed from narrative therapy. A key principle of narrative therapy is that the person is not the problem – instead, the problem is the problem. The problem is viewed as something with which the person is in a relationship, not as something that is part of the person. It follows then that the person can separate themselves from the problem and reduce its effects on them.

Family-based treatment (FBT), the leading evidence-based treatment for adolescent eating disorders, adopts narrative therapy’s externalization strategy in dealing with the eating disorder. The perspective taken by FBT clinicians is that the teen must be extricated from the eating disorder’s clutches.

When working with families, the FBT therapist encourages them to treat the eating disorder as an external force that has invaded the teen and hijacked their brain. Some families will even name the illness after a favorite villain such as “Voldemort” or refer to it as “the monster.” The therapist then rallies parents and other family members to unite against this common enemy to help their teen fend it off.

Many patients and family members can relate to this externalization strategy because the teen does appear to transform into a “different person” under the spell of the eating disorder, especially around mealtimes. This externalization allows families to reframe the situation: the teen does not want to restrict their eating—instead, that the eating disorder is an alien force that makes them restrict their eating.

While both Life Without Ed and FBT have given externalization popular traction, research has not definitively answered whether it is a helpful technique. While we do have research showing FBT to be highly effective, FBT includes so many elements it’s possible that it might work without the externalization component. In order to know for sure, we would need special research in the form of dismantling studies that test each individual element of a full treatment—to determine the role of externalization on the overall treatment outcome. This has not been a high priority for researchers.

What are some advantages of externalizing the eating disorder?

  • It offers a convenient and relatable metaphor: “The eating disorder is possessing you.”
  • It can make it easier to call out certain behaviors as problematic even if they do not feel troubling to the patient themselves.
  • Experiencing the eating disorder as an unwelcome invader may help marshal the patient to fight back against it.
  • Redirecting the anger of families and caregivers towards the eating disorder allows them to retain compassion for the patient.
  • It puts everyone on the same team battling a common enemy: the eating disorder.
  • It can help the patient become accountable for their own recovery by learning to rebel against and defy Ed.

Reasons you might not want to externalize the eating disorder

Some professionals worry that giving the eating disorder its own persona gives it too much power and might encourage patients to blame the eating disorder while absolving them of any responsibility for recovery. Some people find externalization too trendy and are put off by it.

Some people with eating disorders feel like the eating disorder is a part of them. Many of the characteristics of patients with eating disorders—such as perfectionism—are actually personality traits that by themselves are not problematic. So by associating these characteristics with an external agent, there is a risk of inadvertently criticizing the patient. They may find the externalization technique dismissive or invalidating of their experience and may become angry when their family members externalize the eating disorder.

So, should you do It?

Clinicians and family members considering externalization should assess the potential risks and benefits of this technique. If you are a person with an eating disorder and this metaphor makes sense to you, you can learn more about the strategy by reading Life Without Ed. If you are a family member of a person with an eating disorder and/or a parent doing FBT, it can also be helpful to consider this as a strategy for talking about the eating disorder with your loved one. Life Without Ed is also good reading for parents and even some teens in recovery.

If you are supporting a person in recovery and they dislike your ascribing the eating disorder its own persona, then you can refrain from talking about it in front of your loved one but still use it as a way to frame your own understanding of the situation.

Eating disorder expert Carolyn Costin, MA, MED, MFT suggests a similar but alternative strategy to externalization: think of the patient as having two aspects of their own self, a “healthy self” and an “eating disorder self.” Eating disorder researcher Kelly Vitousek, Ph.D. offers another option: abandon the metaphor altogether and explain these behaviors to the patient as symptoms of starvation. These alternatives to externalization might be preferable to some people with eating disorders.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that, regardless of the way an eating disorder is framed, behavioral change is critical for recovery. Many of the symptoms and dangers of an eating disorder can be related to nutritional deficits and these symptoms are often improved with proper nutrition and normalization of eating behaviors.

How do I Parent My Teen During Family-Based Treatment? When to Set Limits

Photo by Jakob Rosen on Unsplash

Parents doing FBT often struggle with “normal parenting concerns” and setting limits while doing FBT. They’re refeeding their teens at home, doing the hard work often done by professional staff at treatment centers, but they still have to parent. It’s exhausting. Their teens who have eating disorders are often experiencing the psychological and physical consequences of malnutrition while also being a teen and facing the challenges that typically come with that stage of life —social and academic pressures, family stresses, desire for more independence, and puberty.

It’s not uncommon for teens to be a little rebellious or to challenge limits. Some parents may feel they should ignore any defiance from teens in recovery or may be afraid to confront behaviors they would normally not tolerate in their children. Other parents may want to clamp down on all undesirable behaviors.

In FBT we talk about separating the child from the eating disorder and joining with and loving your child while waging war against the eating disorder threatening your teen’s life. This model may be helpful in decisions about how to parent. I recommend first trying to determine whether the behaviors you are concerned about are part of the ED or not.

This may not be obvious at first glance, but if defiance or anger or disrespectful language or threatening behavior comes out at, just before, or after meals or during an FBT appointment or a weight check—or around discussions of food, body, the eating disorder, or treatment—assume it’s the eating disorder and not your child. Remember that your child with an eating disorder has a decreased ability to regulate emotions as a result of malnourishment and that they are in a state of terror at these times. This is the fight-or-flight reaction seen during episodes of high anxiety. The eating disorder will make them lash out in hopes of avoiding the source of the anxiety (food, weighing, etc.). During those moments, I recommend speaking to them compassionately and recognizing the underlying emotion of anxiety, and not reprimanding the behavior in the moment.

During times outside of meals or treatment—which may seem few and far between for those just beginning this journey—this behavior is less likely to “be the ED.” At these times, you should parent largely as you would normally do, with the caveat that your child is under increased stress from treatment. If you would normally reprimand or give a consequence to your child for inappropriate language, staying out after curfew, or screaming at you, feel free to do so. You do not have to tolerate rudeness and defiance and can require appropriate behavior.

As you do this, do keep in mind that the intense process of recovery—including exposure to what is often 6 meals per day—is putting your child under additional stress. I like to remind parents that in many cases, teens go to residential treatment centers. While these centers have their pros and cons, one helpful aspect of residential treatment is that it removes the teen from the everyday stresses of school and home life (annoying brother, curious extended family, and heavy academic loads, etc.) so they can focus entirely on treatment.  It can be easy to overlook how these stressors add up.

You might want to pick your battles so your teen doesn’t feel battered all the time. Some smaller things—like clothes on the floor of their room or not cleaning their bathroom—may need to be overlooked. You will want to prioritize addressing behaviors that affect you—for example, rude language—or that interfere with the goals of treatment, including weight gain and normalizing eating. So, if your teen doesn’t come back in time from an outing with friends and misses a snack or meal, that would be a high priority to address. On the other hand, you might choose to let go of their not going to bed on time (as long as it doesn’t keep them from getting up in time for breakfast).

If you are unsure whether the behaviors are part of the eating disorder or not and how to respond, I encourage you to consider whether their behavior is different than it was prior to the eating disorder. A normal developmental trajectory may be contributing to the changes in behavior. An older adolescent may be more challenging of authority and may exhibit behaviors that were not a part of the repertoire 6 to 9 months earlier, before the start of the eating disorder.  If the behavior is different, consider whether it might be related to the stress of recovery, the result of malnutrition, or something else entirely. If it seems different and/or persists, speak to your treatment providers or have your child assessed. It may be that they have another mental health disorder that needs to be addressed. If the behaviors were there before the eating disorder, you should also talk to your treatment providers and see if additional support is needed to help you address them.

Finally, keep in mind that this is a tough time. You have a lot on your plate. Parenting and treating an eating disorder is a lot all at once. Try to separate your teen from their eating disorder and develop a list of priority behaviors to address so you don’t take on too much at once. Talk to your treatment team about your concerns. And remember you don’t have to abdicate all parenting just because you are also on their treatment team.

Recommended Reading

Two of my favorite teen parenting books:

Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager by Anthony E. Wolf

Parenting Teens with Love and Logic: Preparing Adolescents for Responsible Adulthood by Jim Fay and Foster Cline

Low-Cost Eating Disorder Psychotherapy Now Available

Low-Cost Eating Disorder TherapyWe are excited to announce that via our designation as a practicum site we are now able to train advanced graduate students in psychology in evidence-based treatment for eating disorders. This allows us to further our mission of helping to disseminate evidence-based treatments and to bring them to people in Los Angeles County who need them. We are also able to offer a true low-cost treatment option. Our psychology externs will be able to provide individual psychotherapy for adults with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder and teens and adults with disordered eating and body image concerns.

Beginning in August, 2021, the cost for sessions with our psychological externs is $60 per therapy hour. We will also be offering some lower-cost groups. Sessions are available in-person in our office in mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and virtually with individuals throughout California.

As of June 2021, EDTLA has developed a memorandum of understanding with two local doctoral programs in clinical psychology— the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University and Pepperdine University’s Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program of the Graduate School of Education and Psychology.

Each year, up to two advanced-level doctoral students are carefully selected through an interview process to be psychological externs at EDTLA. Psychological externs provide individual and group therapy to adults and adolescents.

All of the psychological externs receive extensive training through EDTLA’s training seminars and supervision program in order to provide quality therapy at lower fees than is typically found in Los Angeles.

All Psychological Externs work directly under Dr. Muhlheim (PSY15045), meaning that treatment decisions and progress are monitored on a weekly basis by an experienced licensed psychologist.

To inquire about receiving treatment from one of our psychology externs, please complete this form (and put Psychology Extern) under “Requested Clinician.”

You can read more about our current psychology externs here.

EMDR for Eating Disorders

EMDR and Eating Disorders [close up of an eye]
Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

By Runjhun Pandit, LPCC

EMDR….Sounds scary.

EMDR therapy, these acronyms make it sound like a scary treatment intervention. And oftentimes, when I mention this to my clients, they feel scared or confused. They do have questions about how it works and how it is different from hypnosis.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment specifically created to help people deal with a traumatic situation. It was initially developed for veterans who suffered flashbacks and nightmares upon return from war and were trying to readjust back to life with their families. Soldiers experienced reenactment of the wars in their dreams, emotional outbursts leading to frequent conflicts with their families, inability to maintain steady relationships, and dissociation from reality. EMDR hence was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. with the assumption that eye movements could assist in desensitizing to a traumatic situation. 

The limbic system in our brain is responsible for our behavioral and emotional responses while the brainstem and cortex are the areas that help in relaying the message from the spinal cord to the brain and store the verbal story of the events in our daily lives. When a person experiences a traumatic situation–like an accident or exposure to prolonged emotional distress like abuse or neglect– the usual coping mechanism that would help the person effectively “process” the situation, goes into overdrive. And the limbic system isolates this memory and stores it in the form of an emotional and physical sensation. Due to this isolation, the cerebral cortex doesn’t remember the “story” but the limbic system sends out an emotional response when some events in the present trigger some areas of the traumatic event. Hence, even if the memory is forgotten, the emotions attached to the memory– like pain, anxiety, or body sensations– continue to trigger the person in the present. This prevents a person from experiencing new situations or from living in the moment since oftentimes some parts of the present emotionally burden the limbic system. 

During EMDR sessions, the therapist creates a treatment plan and simulates eye movements similar to the ones that occur during REM sleep by asking the client to follow their fingers. Our brain has the natural capacity to heal itself. During the session, the therapist might also use a light bar to help you track the light across the visual field. These movements last for a minute and the therapist will ask you to report any experience–such as a change in emotions,, memories, or thoughts–after each set of eye movements. By repeating this process, the traumatic memory eventually loses its emotional charge and gets stored in the mind instead as a neutral memory. Frequently, people also have smaller memories associated with the actual traumatic memory which also may get resolved along the way. It has been noted that the “healing” of these smaller memories also creates a noticeable change in a person’s life. 

Although EMDR was developed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), growing evidence shows that it may also be helpful for the resolution of panic attacks, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and negative body image. EMDR helps clients process the traumatic memory and assimilate it in a healthier way without an emotional charge. Studies have shown that EMDR can be used in conjunction with Family-Based Treatment (FBT) or Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment (CBT) since these treatments focus on the here and now of the eating behavior while EMDR focuses on the past experiences around body image or food that maintain the disordered eating behaviors. Research has shown that EMDR generates a connection between body, emotions, and cognitions by allowing the elaboration of traumatic events and simultaneously resolving the emotional blocks attached to the traumatic memories. 

A complete EMDR treatment helps the person to “walk through” previously considered traumatic events with greater emotional and impulse control which eventually leads to an increase in feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. 

Runjhun Pandit, LPCC is available to see adolescents for EMDR via telehealth. EMDR can be helpful for food-related traumas and other traumas that might perpetuate eating disorder symptoms such as bullying, body shame, and other invalidating experiences.  To make an appointment with Runjhun Pandit, complete this form

Sources

Bloomgarden A, Calogero RM. A randomized experimental test of the efficacy of EMDR treatment on negative body image in eating disorder inpatients. Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. 2008; 16(5): 418–427.

Maria Zaccagnino, Cristina Civilotti, Martina Cussino, Chiara Callerame and Isabel Fernandez (February 1st 2017). EMDR in Anorexia Nervosa: From a Theoretical Framework to the Treatment Guidelines, Eating Disorders – A Paradigm of the Biopsychosocial Model of Illness, Ignacio Jauregui-Lobera, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/65695. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/eating-disorders-a-paradigm-of-the-biopsychosocial-model-of-illness/emdr-in-anorexia-nervosa-from-a-theoretical-framework-to-the-treatment-guidelines

Verardo A, Zaccagnino M, Lauretti G. Clinical applications in the context of attachment: the role of EMDR. Clinical applications in the context of attachment: the role of EMDR. Infanzia e Adolescenza. 2014; 13: 172–184

What’s in Your Soothing/Coping Kit?

Coping Skills Tool BoxClockwise starting at left: adult coloring book and colored pencils, Kinetic Sand (in purple), Enso Buddha Board, scented candle (my favorite—Thymes Kimono Rose), Spek magnetic balls (in purple), good old fashioned Silly Putty, The Squeeze Aromatherapy Dough (in Lavender).

 

We all deal with stress and have to find ways to cope with a range of emotions. Having ways to release stress, distract, soothe, discharge energy, and fidget can help. Whether you are young or old, managing your own stress or supporting a family member, everyone could benefit from a homemade calming toolkit. Here are a few items that are in my toolbox. What’s in yours?

Other ideas for soothing activities could be cuddling with a pet, doing a meditation, listening to calming music, playing Words with Friends, putting essential oil or scented lotion on your arms. What works for each person will be different. Be creative.

Structuring Your Eating Disorder Recovery Environment

 

Structuring Your Eating Disorder Recovery Environment [Image description: hand visible writing in planner]Recovery is challenging! I am repeatedly moved and impressed by the courage of my patients as they work through recovery from an eating disorder. One strategy that can help support recovery is a careful ​structuring of one’s recovery environment. This applies to adults working individually in treatment as well as to families helping adolescents to recover.

Most evidence-based treatments including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) suggest that patients consider the timing of the start of treatment and potentially postpone it if they anticipate major distractions that will impede recovery. Similarly, it can be helpful when possible to try to minimize challenges.

Recovery looks different for everyone. Some patients are ambivalent about treatment and the changes it will require. Others are eager to be recovered from their eating disorder and just want to get on with life. And many may feel the urge to rush recovery. But I encourage you to “take it slow.”

Recovery 101

As a behaviorist, I like to think of recovery as a set of skills that are learned, developed, and practiced in increasingly challenging environments. Whether you are transitioning to an outpatient level of care or beginning treatment as an outpatient or supporting a teen in recovery at home, those first few months should be treated like “Recovery 101.” This is a training phase in which you are first learning and trying out recovery skills. Your abilities will become more fine-tuned as you practice increasingly difficult skills.

In this phase, it is best to be in a highly structured environment without too many complexities. Most people do best with structure. This is why settings housing large numbers of people tend to be highly structured. (I know – I worked in LA County Jail for 10 years.) This is also why higher levels of care with the sickest patients are highly structured. Structure makes things predictable and reduces anxiety.

In a structured setting, it is easier to follow a routine, such as eating at a regular time, having a familiar meal, and facing fewer distractions. Chaotic and unstructured environments are unpredictable, are more challenging for recovery, and require more advanced and flexible recovery skills.

The Challenge of Environment

In Recovery 101, it is often easiest to start by keeping things simple and predictable. Each element that adds complexity or uncertainty to the environment presents an additional challenge to someone with an eating disorder. Novel situations, different foods, different food venues, and different companions can all bring anxiety to those in early recovery. Any deviation from a routine requires additional skills, so handling each of these should be viewed as a new skill to master.

We can think about this as a ladder with each rung adding new difficulty. At the bottom is generally eating meals at home with support from immediate family. The next rungs might include:

  • Having friends or relatives over for dinner
  • Eating at a close friend’s house
  • Eating at a restaurant where individual entrees are served
  • Eating at a family-style restaurant
  • Eating at a buffet.

Each higher rung on the ladder requires more decisions and thus more skill. Each skill must be practiced.

Take it Slow

Many patients are tempted to climb the ladder quickly, rushing towards the more complicated and challenging situations. This is not advisable when someone is in Recovery 101. Some challenges are better left until recovery skills are stronger, if at all possible. It is easiest to learn skills first in one place and then to practice them in different settings. It is in this way that skills will generalize.

More advanced challenges that may best wait until the basic skills are mastered will vary from individual to individual, but these can include situations such as:

  • Weekend schedules when you have slept late (do you count brunch as breakfast or lunch and how do you handle the rest of the meals when your first meal is 3 hours late?)
  • Cooking for oneself
  • Going to unfamiliar restaurants
  • Eating at a small-plates, buffet, or family-style restaurant
  • Foreign travel to countries where the foods may be entirely unfamiliar

Instead of taking on advanced challenges all at once, consider potential ways to structure the environment during early eating disorder recovery:

  • Having meals planned out for the entire week
  • Eating meals at regular times
  • Regular grocery shopping
  • Having a backup plan (in case you run late or a plan changes)
  • Always carrying snacks (and backup snacks)
  • Planning alternative activities for high-risk times (for many patients that is evenings spent at home. For one patient, that meant going out on evenings her husband would not be home for dinner.)
  • Limiting meals at unfamiliar restaurants
  • Only bringing into the home small quantities of foods on which you have binged
  • Having a support person you can call
  • Structured schedules for every day of the week, including weekends
  • Careful planning ahead (with your team if you have one) for any situation you have not yet practiced

Keep in mind that you may experience setbacks. Sometimes you have to go back down the ladder before going back up again. This is a normal part of recovery.

When recovery is further along, you will be better able to handle more complex and challenging situations. Flexibility will come, but for now, keep it simple.

 

College, COVID, and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know

College, COVID, and Eating Disorders [Image description: woman with mask in front of computer]
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

As I’ve talked about in depth here, the transition to college away from home is challenging for most young adults. It is especially fraught for young adults with eating disorders. In that article I provided a College Readiness Checklist for students who are either considering their first move away from home after a history of an eating disorder or returning to college after being diagnosed with an eating disorder. I have learned the hard way. I’ve witnessed the heartbreaking reality of what can happen to students who go away before they’re ready. I may seem stringent, but we’re talking about one of the most deadly mental illnesses and this is your child’s life and future.

I was recently asked whether the same standards should apply in the current climate. I replied that I thought the standards should actually be more stringent given the pandemic. This has been on my mind all summer; now, I am prepared to sound the alarm.

Students with eating disorders of all types—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)—often have a narrow range of foods they are comfortable eating. They often struggle with flexibility.

The pandemic has thrown a wrench—really, a whole toolbox—into the college experience. Among the changes this fall is that most dining halls have pivoted to prepackaged meals. This will be an added challenge for students with eating disorders. Students have already reported that the results are long lines as they wait for food, far fewer food choices, no option to portion their meals themselves, and no option to mix and match. These prepackaged meals may be insufficient in nutrients or energy, especially for students in recovery who have high energy needs.

Add to this the experience of students who are quarantining either due to outbreak or exposure, or as required by the college upon return to campus as a preventative measure.  Most are in dorm rooms without access to a kitchen. Social media has exploded with unfortunate food stories:

These stories are garnering attention, people find it laughable, and the colleges are receiving criticism, but I can only think about how the students with eating disorders are impacted.

Eating disorder recovery requires eating at regular intervals and meals sufficient to maintain recovery. Even a small negative energy balance can increase the risk for relapse in individuals with anorexia nervosa or increase the risk of binge eating for those with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

Students who are not very stable in their recovery may not be able to handle the current climate. They may not be able to seek additional food if portions are too small. People early in recovery often experience shame about hunger. It could be very triggering to receive portions that are not satisfying. Patients with eating disorders may not be able to advocate for their nutritional needs or do the problem-solving required to make sure the meals are sufficient. Finally, receiving an entire day’s worth of meals at the end of the day would be a natural trigger for those who have struggled with binge eating—or for most people!

Add to this the stress of academics and social issues and the uncertainty about the rest of the semester, and you have a perfect storm for relapse.

If you have any doubts about whether your student may be ready for college under these challenging circumstances, I strongly encourage you to consider keeping them home this semester. If there ever was a time to err on the side of caution, it is now.

With most classes online and social options at college significantly limited, this provides a unique opportunity to keep them home so they have more recovery time under their belt before they have to face such eating challenges. They will not be missing much, and you can work on strengthening recovery so that when the pandemic is over they can return as a healthier student capable of embracing the full college experience. You can use my article—which outlines steps to prepare a student for the challenges of navigating recovery in college— to make sure they are fully prepared when the time is right.

Adjunctive Therapies to FBT: What are the Additional Therapies That May be Added to FBT? And When Should They Be Added?

Image Description: Paper in window that reads "Mindfulness" Adjunctive therapies that go alongside FBT for Eating Disorders
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

In a previous post, I have discussed who is typically on an FBT team. In its traditional manualized form, the core team is a therapist, a medical doctor, and the parents. The team can also include a registered dietitian nutritionist (to guide the parents) and may include a psychiatrist.

It is not uncommon for medical providers unfamiliar with FBT and treatment centers to encourage additional individual therapy for the patient. As I have said previously, this is not always advisable. In FBT, less can be more—the work of the parents may be undermined by an individual therapist who either does not believe in or does not support FBT.

So, I thought it would be useful to describe in greater detail the situations in which I think additional therapies are warranted and which therapies are most aligned with FBT.

FBT is primarily a behavioral treatment, administered by parents. The two therapies I discuss below—Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention—are also behavioral treatments that can be applied consistently alongside FBT without confusion. By contrast, non-behaviorally-based therapies may create splitting or confusion when offered alongside FBT. In particular, you should be cautious about and avoid therapies that do not reinforce the parents’ authority over eating or introduce different theories about the cause of an eating disorder.

Comprehensive Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) developed in the 1980s by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. It was developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and is now considered the most effective treatment for this population. Research has demonstrated its effectiveness for a range of other mental disorders including substance dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.

DBT stands out as the treatment of choice for people with difficulty regulating emotions—those prone to outbursts of anger and impulsive behaviors such as self-harm and purging. It focuses on the teaching of skills to tolerate emotions and improve relationships.

Be aware that there are many therapists (including us!) who use DBT skills in individual therapy with clients. Some therapists also may offer a standalone DBT skills training group. However, while these individual elements of DBT treatment may be beneficial, comprehensive DBT has a powerful advantage.

For DBT to by comprehensive it must comprise the following components:

  • DBT skills training. This almost always occurs in a group format run like a class. Group leaders teach behavioral skills and assign homework. Groups meet weekly for 24 weeks to complete the curriculum. Skills training consists of four modules: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Emotion Regulation.
  • Individual therapy. Weekly sessions run concurrently with the skills training. The individual therapist helps clients apply the DBT skills.
  • Phone coaching. Clients are encouraged to reach out to their individual therapists to receive in-the-moment support applying skills during times of need.
  • DBT Consultation Team to Support the Therapist. All the members of the DBT team (group therapists and individual therapists) support each other in managing these clients who are in high distress.

When a teen is in comprehensive DBT, there is usually a parallel track for the parents that includes a parent skills group and a parent phone coach so that the parents receive help supporting their teen who is learning to apply DBT skills.

Exposure and Response Prevention

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) refers to specific CBT strategies used to address obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or similar symptoms. OCD is characterized by distressing and intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in which a person engages to try to reduce the distress. In ERP, the patient is exposed to the distressing situation and encouraged to prevent their compulsive behavior so they can learn to tolerate the distress. Once a person feels capable of handling their distress they will no longer need to engage in the compulsive behavior.

OCD and eating disorders commonly co-occur, and eating disorders can result in compulsive behaviors that require additional attention, such as compulsive exercise or other rituals not related to eating. Patients with eating disorders who engage in these behaviors may benefit from the addition of ERP.

Instagram to make Diet Ads viewable for ages 18 and over—Why They should Remove Them Altogether

by Carolyn Hersh, LCSW

Instagram to make Diet Ads viewable for ages 18 and over—Why They should Remove Them Altogether [image description: iPhone on a table with instagram logo on screen]
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
On September 18th, 2019 Instagram instituted an official policy that all ads promoting diet and weight loss products would only be able to be viewed by users 18 and over. Any ads that have false claims can be reported and subject to removal. This is a huge victory in the world of challenging diet culture. For years, celebrities and social media influencers have been advertising diet and weight loss products that, for the most part, are bogus, promise false results and can be just downright dangerous to someone’s physical and mental health.

Most celebrities who promote these products are doing so for a paycheck and not because they are actually finding these products useful. Unfortunately, advertisements like these can impact impressionable viewers, especially those struggling with poor body image, disordered eating and eating disorders. And while the celebrities may say, “Take this and look like me,” the reality is that these products have no true evidence that they can change anyone.

Emma Collins, Instagram’s public policy manager, made a statement after this policy went into effect, “We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.” While this is a great step forward, it does feel like the next step should be eliminating diet and weight loss products altogether.

There are some major problems with advertising weight loss products. As a Health at Every Size® activist and promoter of body positivity, I can tell you that these products merely reinforce the idea that your body isn’t good enough. They teach that there is only one ideal body, and usually, it is the body of the celebrity promoting the product. It can be really dangerous to tell people that tea will flatten their stomachs or a lollipop will give them curves in the “right” places.

These advertisements put people at risk for developing eating disorders. They promote the very behaviors that are symptoms of eating disorders. These products try to normalize appetite suppression or compensating for what one has eaten via a laxative pill or tea. The messages are not health-promoting. They reinforce diet culture beliefs of certain foods being bad and needing to atone for eating.

A major issue is that there is absolutely no evidence that the products being advertised actually help with weight loss, detoxing your body of toxins, or changing the shape of your body. Most of these products are not even approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is charged with regulating medications and while there are a few that have been approved, most that are advertised on social media are not. Most of these products carry false claims and use ingredients that can be more harmful than helpful. And that is a huge problem.

We do not often see celebrities sharing disclaimers of potential side effects from using these products. Diet pills may increase heart rate, heart palpitations, the likelihood of a stroke, and even death. The detox teas carry the risk of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and stripping our guts of the nutrients we need. Side effects can also include an increase in stomach cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Our bodies were designed to naturally flush out toxins. It is why we have a liver. And for those users of the products looking for a way to lose weight, well the weight “lost” from these teas are usually just water or stool mass. These products place a huge toll on the body and put vital organs at risk.

For these reasons, we should not only be protecting social media users who are under 18. We should be protecting everyone from viewing these ads. Adults are probably more likely to purchase these products and adults are just as susceptible to false promises as adolescents. It is great that places like Instagram are giving us a choice if we want to view these ads. It is definitely a step in the right direction. But, there is nothing safe about these products. From taking a physical toll on our bodies to mentally placing shame on our bodies there is no room for diet pills, detox teas, or any other weight loss product.

If you are currently struggling with how you feel about your body, help is available through support groups, therapy, and even body-positive accounts and groups on social media. The wonderful thing about social media is that there is a community for promoting Health at Every Size® and working on self-love and acceptance. Most of these groups do not cost anything and can have to have positive effects on your mind and body.

Parents, Don’t Let Your Kids Download Kurbo!

Parents, don't let kids download Kurbo app [image description: traffic light with all lights on]A disclaimer: I have no vested interest in Weight Watchers’ new Kurbo app. This app will in fact create more work for me. But let me be clear: I do not want this kind of work!

I know that you mean well and are merely concerned about your child’s health, but I can assure you that Weight Watchers does not share your concern. They are a commercial enterprise interested in making money and their business model is based on preying upon insecurities.

You would only need to spend a short time in my waiting room to hear from other parents who were once like you—moderately concerned (or maybe unconcerned) about their child’s weight and happy when their child committed to “eating healthier.” The story is nearly always the same. This child has been in what I would call a larger body—you might have called them “overweight”, pediatricians might have labeled them “obese”. It starts with them giving up sweets and then progresses. They start to restrict meat and starches and exercise more. It looks healthy. Over time, some switch gets tripped, and with very little warning the kid has anorexia, a lethal mental illness.

While most cases of anorexia are triggered by dieting, unintentional weight loss can be a trigger as well. It appears that people predisposed to anorexia respond to a negative energy balance in a way that flips this switch and they cross a dieting point of no return. Many of the teens I work with have been hospitalized for life-threatening low heart rates and electrolyte imbalances.

I cannot adequately express the guilt that parents feel from having allowed their teens to start these diets. I don’t blame them. I understand the pressure they are under.

Two of my three children grew out before they grew up. They had gained the weight their bodies needed to fuel puberty and impending growth spurts. I too received the warning from my well-intentioned pediatrician about their weights and weight gain. I knew enough to ignore the implied suggestion of helping them trim down. I cringe to think what might have happened if I had followed it. My children grew just fine and became more proportional according to their genetic predisposition.

My other child was lauded by the same pediatrician for growing up before growing out. It was only years later when I plotted her growth that I realized she had totally fallen off her expected weight curve at the time the pediatrician praised her weight. Yet, I did notice that she didn’t seem to be eating enough. (For more information on the intervention I did with her, read this post.)

The Kurbo app should come with the following warning:

“This app may trigger an eating disorder
from which your child could take 22 years to recover.”

Yes, 22 years! The most rigorous longitudinal study we have of anorexia has shown that at 9 years, only 31% of individuals with anorexia nervosa had recovered. Almost 63% had recovered at 22 years. If this is the path you follow, you may be facing many long years in and out of costly treatments to help your child recover.

Incidentally, Kurbo has made my job tougher. It classifies foods as “green”, “yellow”, or “red”. “Red” foods, such as ice cream, fried chicken, and pizza are “bad” — Kurbo advises kids to avoid them.

I work with children who suffer from anorexia, may be hypermetabolic, and may require ingesting upwards of 6000 kcal per day for several years to recover. I can’t express the difficulty of convincing an anorexic child to eat highly caloric foods to recover, when they immediately parrot back all the health messages they’ve received about these foods being dangerous. It’s terribly confusing to be told that the foods they’ve learned are bad for them are in fact the medicine that will cure them. This is but one reason why we cannot take a one size fits all approach to foods.

Back in my waiting room, maybe you would hear from some of the adults with eating disorders. They might tell you that years of dieting have contributed to weight gain, weight cycling, binge eating, and misery. They will typically remember that this pattern started in childhood with a diet. Dieting disconnects people from their own internal regulatory system (as does tracking calories and exercise).

What Can Parents Do Instead?  The following advice is for parents of kids of all sizes.

I suggest teaching kids that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes and that body size is largely genetically determined. I recommend viewing the Poodle Science video from ASDAH. This video does a great job illustrating body diversity and the risks of subjecting everyone to a single body standard. I suggest teaching kids that fat bodies are great too. We have to make it safe for people to be fat in order to prevent and treat eating disorders. Eating disorders are a more lethal problem. Parents can avoid judging or criticizing their own or other peoples’ bodies.

I suggest giving kids access to a range of foods — prohibiting “fun” foods leads kids to overvalue and overeat them. We don’t need to label foods as good or bad. Parents can serve nutritious food as well as fun food and model that they are of equal moral value. They can also model that food is supposed to be pleasurable and offers the opportunity for social and cultural connections.

Parents can also help children to move in ways that are fun, rather than teaching that exercise is penance for eating.

For more specific advice on helping kids develop as strong intuitive eaters with healthy body images, I suggest the work of dietitian Ellyn Satter and my psychotherapist colleagues, Zoe Bisbing and Leslie Bloch, The Full Bloom Project.

To Learn More

I recommend reading the statement from the National Eating Disorders Association: NEDA Statement on Kurbo by WW App.

And also The New York Times Op-Ed by dietitian, Christy Harrison: Our Kids Do Not Need A Weight Watchers App.