This Halloween, Serve Candy to Your Teen in Recovery

A Family-Based Treatment (FBT)-approach

Fear FoodFor teens with eating disorders, Halloween can be scary for the wrong reason: the candy! Most teens with eating disorders are only willing to eat a restricted range of foods. Expanding this range is an important goal of treatment, with the reintroduction of fear foods being a key step. Candy tends to be high on the fear food lists of many teens.

Halloween presents an ideal opportunity.

A Taste of Recovery

Most teens in America are excited for Halloween and its bounty of candy. By incorporating some candy during your teen’s Halloween week you can help them approximate the lives of teens who do not have eating disorders. This step can give them a taste of the full life you want for them—a life where they are unencumbered by food restrictions, a life where they can enjoy all foods, a life where they can travel the world confident that they will easily be able to meet their nutritional needs, and a life where they won’t feel the need to shun social events for fear of facing the foods there.

I know that I’m painting a beautiful picture and that this is easier said than done. Teens with eating disorders will deny that the disorder is driving their food preferences. Instead, they claim they simply don’t like candy anymore. Or that candy was the preference of a child and since then their palates have matured. But don’t believe them—you have crucial parental memory and knowledge. You know which foods your teen actually liked a few years back. You also probably know the foods on which he or she binged if they binged. And it is not credible that any teen really hates all candy!

Especially if your teen had a great many fear foods, you may already have experience reintroducing some of them. But once meals start going more smoothly, some weight has been restored, and binges and purges have subsided, many parents are reluctant to push further. Why rock the boat when your teen seems to be doing well? You may be wondering: Is candy really necessary?

In fact, this Halloween is exactly the right time to introduce candy.

Exposure

It is much easier to introduce fear foods before your teen is completely independent in their eating. Right now, you are still overseeing meals and your teen does not yet have their independent life back. Pushing the issue of fear foods becomes more challenging when your teen has regained most of their freedom.

When you introduce fear foods to your teen, you will probably feel anxious. Your teen will too. You may even feel like you are going back a step. This is how exposure works—it is supposed to raise your teen’s anxiety. When your teen avoids these fear foods, their anxiety decreases, reinforcing the avoidant behavior and justifying the anxiety response. This perpetuates both the emotion and the behavior. But the food is not truly dangerous—if the teen were to eat the food, they would learn that nothing catastrophic happens. In exposure, the teen is required to eat the food, and the anxiety response shows itself to be baseless. With repeated exposure, the brain habituates, learns that the food is not harmful, and loses the anxiety response.

Exposure works through repetition over a sustained period of time—not all at once. It’s likely that each food on your teen’s feared list will need to be presented several times before the thought of eating it no longer causes extreme anxiety.

You may feel that requiring your teen to eat candy is extreme. However, remember: the healthy part of your teen probably wants to eat candy, but the eating disorder would beat them up if they ate it willingly. By requiring your teen to eat candy, you are actually granting your teen permission to eat it—permission they are unable to grant themselves. After recovery, many teens report that they really wanted the fear food but were too afraid—it was only when their parents made them eat it that they were able to.

And I would argue that fearlessness in the face of candy is important for your child. So be brave about facing potentially increased resistance by your teen and model facing your own fear.

Here’s How to Incorporate Candy During Halloween:

  1. Choose a few types of candy based on your teen’s preferences about three years before they developed their eating disorder. (If you can’t remember, ask one of their siblings or just pick a few options, maybe one chocolate-based and a non-chocolate alternative.) Make your choice based on providing your teen with the typical American teen experience. (American teens will typically collect a lot of candy on Halloween, have a few pieces that night, and then have candy as snacks a few times during the following week.)
  2. You may choose to tell your teen about the candy ahead of time or not. Some families find that telling teens about exposure to fear foods ahead of time is helpful; other families find that it is better to just present a fear food without warning. But note that you are not required to ask their permission; FBT is a parent-driven treatment.
  3. Serve a single serving of candy during dessert or snack a few times during the week of Halloween. Plan carefully and be thoughtful. Do this with the same resolve that you use when you serve them any starches or proteins. You may want to introduce the candy on a day when you feel more confident, will have more time to manage potential resistance, or can be sure a second caregiver will be present. You may not want to present candy, or any fear food, before an event that you are not willing to miss in case you encounter an extreme reaction.
  4. If your teen binges or purges, make sure to sit with them for an hour after they eat the candy.
  5. Plan for what will happen if your teen refuses to eat the candy. For example, will you offer something else instead and try the candy again tomorrow? Offer a reward for eating the candy? Create a consequence for noncompletion? Whatever you decide, be consistent and follow through.

If you do this-this year, there is a good chance that by next Halloween your teen will be eating candy independently!

Phobia Exposure Therapy

Phobia Exposure Therapy

We are excited to announce that we are now providing virtual reality phobia exposure therapy –partnering with Psious. Psious is one of the pioneering companies in the development of Virtual Reality for therapeutc purposes. The Spanish company offers immersive 3D simulations designed to treat a variety of mental disorders. A multidisciplinary team of psychologists, 3D artists and engineers worked together to create the first online platform for mental health practitioners, which makes the treatment readily accessible to patients.

Exposure is a critical component for the successful treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders. Standard therapy for phobias typically includes imaginal exposure (using the client’s ability to imagine him or herself in different scenarios such as on an airplane or in an elevator) done in session and in vivo exposure (real-life exposure) assigned as homework. Virtual reality therapy offers a powerful alternative, in that exposure scenarios that feel vivid can be faced with your therapist in session. This provides many benefits including privacy and cost-effectiveness (versus, for example, taking multiple actual plane flights). Virtual reality exposure therapy is effective and it allows the therapist to customize and titrate exposures specifically for each patient.

In VR, the patient wears a headset, which creates a completely 3-dimensional, immersive virtual environment.

Below is a demonstration of virtual reality and augmented reality exposure treatment for spider phobia.

Some of the issues we are able to treat using VR include:

  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of heights
  • Fear of enclosed spaces
  • Fear of driving
  • Fear of insects

Exposure therapy is a component of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which is the leading treatment for anxiety disorders. You will receive a complete assessment and treatment plan. CBT is a time-limited treatment. Phobias can often be successfully treated in 5 to 15 sessions of psychotherapy. In addition to exposure practice, treatment also includes psychoeducation, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation training.

If you are looking for phobia exposure therapy in Los Angeles, call (323-473-2112) or email us (lmuhlheim@eatingdisordertherapyla.com) today to learn more.

FBT Meal Strategies Gleaned from Ziplining

Understanding and Responding to Your Youngster’s Fear: A Metaphor

FBT Meal Strategies Gleaned from Ziplining
The author on the zipline

I often explain to parents that for a youngster suffering from an eating disorder, a meal can feel dangerous – like jumping out of an airplane. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to (almost) live out this metaphor on a family vacation. This experience led me to reflect on the experience of both the teen and their support team:

Recently our family went zip-lining for the first time. I was terrified. But as I was zip-lining, I paid close attention to how I felt and behaved and what helped me get through the experience.

Despite the excitement I had felt when we initially planned the activity, when I saw the length and height of the zip-lines, I had misgivings. I imagined that this is how many of my patients must feel before many meals. Imagine, though, that they face this fear up to six times daily!

During the zip-lining adventure, I felt most comfortable going after my children and before my husband. Even though once I was on the zip-line I was alone, rushing through the air at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, so fast my eyelashes were blowing into my eyes – somehow taking the plunge in this order made me feel like I was snugly nestled between them.

The calm and assurance of the line attendants was comforting. They knew what they were doing. At every single end of each of the eight lines, I felt compelled to tell the attendant that secured or unstrapped me exactly how terrified I was. I was relieved when they joked and told me they knew I would be fine. I also felt supported when my kids received me at the end of each line and reminded me that the next one wouldn’t be any harder. Knowing that my kids and husband were there with me and that we were doing it together made this fear something I wasnt facing alone.

So, how does this apply to supporting a young person with an eating disorder?

Physical Placement of Support

During the zip-lining adventure, I felt most comfortable going after my children and before my husband. One of the basic premises of FBT is that the support of the family during mealtimes provides a supportive environment for recovery. Parents often find that sitting at the table on either side of their adolescent during mealtimes provides additional structure and support. It is an act of love to support a child through a meal when they are terrified.

Confidence

If the zip-line attendants had expressed hesitation or anxiety about what they were doing I probably would have refused to go. Calm and confident parents inspire trust in their children, making it easier for them to eat. Sometimes parents have to fake it until they do feel confident.

Validation

At every single end of each of the eight lines, I felt compelled to recount my terror to the attendant that secured or unstrapped me. I didn’t need to hear any response in particular. It just relieved me to express how scared I was and to know that the attendants heard me. When parents hear their child say he or she doesn’t want to eat, it is more helpful to simply hear it and stay calm than it is to get upset and try to argue or reason.

Reassurance

If the zip-line attendants had tried to reassure me by giving me detailed factual information about the strength of the lines and so on, my attempts to parse this information in my state of anxious activation might have only increased my anxiety. Parents can empathize with the fear and express confidence that their adolescent will be okay. “I know you are scared. I know you can do this.” Parents know their youngster and know whether joking will work. It is usually best to avoid getting into the content of the fear, such as how many calories are in the food, why they need fats in their diets, etc.

Togetherness

I also felt supported when my kids received me at the end of each line and reminded me that the next one wouldn’t be any harder. Knowing that my kids and husband were there with me, and that we were doing it together, made this fear something I wasn’t facing alone. The presence and support of parents and siblings and extended family during and after meals is critical.

 

At the end of my zip-lining experience, my nerves were spent and I felt exhausted. But, I was happy and proud I had faced my fear with the support of family. In the far more essential activity of eating, families can provide similar support to make fears bearable and provide an environment that allows teenagers with eating disorders to recover and flourish.

Parents usually get the best results when they are like the zip-line attendants: calm, empathizing with the fear, and never engaging the source of the fear (in this case, the eating disorder). Avoid getting pulled into the content of the eating disorder thoughts. When your adolescent says they are worried about the caloric content of food, think about what they are really expressing: their anxiety about eating. It is much better to empathize with how scared they are than to debate whether food is healthy for them (spoiler alert: it is).

ICED 2012

Two weeks ago I attended the International Conference on Eating Disorders, a conference sponsored by the Academy for Eating Disorders.  My attendance at the annual conference allow me to stay up to date on the most recent advances in treatment and provide the best and most recent treatments in my practice.  My involvement in the Academy allows me to connect with clinicians and researchers from all over the world and participate in AED committees and special interest groups.  I also keep up to date through the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the AED listserve, and AED’s social media sites.

Highlights from the International Conference on Eating Disorders 2012

  • Meeting and spending time with some of the major family and patient advocates, other FBT providers, and clinicians and researchers from around the world all coming together to improve treatment for patients suffering from eating disorders.
  • The opportunity to meet and learn from some of the leading researchers in the area of eating disorders.
  • Learning about the most recent and ongoing studies. 

A synopsis of one of my favorite talks below:

Tidbits from Tim Walsh and his group at Columbia:  A New Model for Understanding Anorexia Nervosa and Implications for Treatment

In anorexia, dieting begets weight loss which begets more dieting… why is dieting such a persistent behavior?  Tim Walsh and his group believe that operant conditioning, which is implicated in habit formation, offers an explanation. Continue reading “ICED 2012”

Exposure in the treatment of Eating Disorders

Exposure therapy is widely recognized as a necessary (and sometimes sufficient) ingredient of treatment for most of the anxiety disorders including phobias, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Anxiety is a core psychological feature of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.  However, instead of being afraid of heights, speaking in public, having a heart attack, or contamination, individuals with eating disorders are primarily afraid of food, eating, and shape and weight.

Both cognitive-behavioral therapy and family based treatment, two empirically validated treatments for eating disorders, employ exposure techniques.  Exposure works through the process of habituation, the natural neurologically-based tendency to get used to things to which you are exposed for a long time.   During exposure, habituation occurs as people acclimate to their fear and come to realize that nothing actually dangerous is occurring. Habituation promotes new learning of safety, tolerance of fear feelings, and extinction of the fear avoidance urge.  Continue reading “Exposure in the treatment of Eating Disorders”