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Anorexia Nervosa From Diagnosis to Recovery

Receiving an anorexia nervosa diagnosis can be the beginning of a very long and challenging process. Eating disorders don’t develop all at once; there are many factors that combine to act as the root causes. Recovery is no different. Treatment begins with a diagnosis, followed by many different treatment techniques and exercises, through discharge and aftercare. The anorexia nervosa recovery process takes careful planning, with the right aftercare steps in place and a good support system surrounding the individual in treatment.

An anorexia nervosa diagnosis means that a serious and sometimes dangerous mental health condition has entered an individual’s life; however, people with the disorder can attain long-term recovery. After receiving a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, there are options for treatment. Many times, the diagnosis is made by a therapist, who can then continue treatment with modifications designed for the eating disorder. However, in general, eating disorders are considered to be severe enough psychiatric crises that specialized treatment is required.

Eating disorder treatment centers normally offer both residential and day treatment (outpatient) options for specialized treatment. These programs generally differ only in the time spent at the facility and the completeness of the medical overage. For patients with more severe physical symptoms or psychiatric care needs, residential might be the right choice. Step-down programs are offered on a day treatment basis, as well as standalone programs for less intense cases. Usually, the therapeutic methods used at residential centers, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and group therapy sessions, are also offered in day treatment programs.

Long-term recovery is more than great residential or day treatment programs, though. What an individual does after recovery is just as important. Eating disorder relapse rates are relatively high, even after treatment; studies suggest that 35 to 41 percent of people with anorexia nervosa relapse within 18 months of finishing treatment. That’s why the recovery journey doesn’t end with discharge from an eating disorder treatment center – it requires aftercare and support for months and even years after treatment. For those interested in finding a comprehensive anorexia nervosa treatment center, it’s important to consider what kinds of different aftercare programs have been put in place before making any final decisions.

What Are the Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa, among the more severe mental health diseases affecting young women and men, is a potentially life-threatening psychiatric disorder that is characterized by restriction of caloric intake, extreme weight loss, and an inability to maintain a healthy weight and nutritional balance. Atypical anorexia is another type of this disorder in which the person restricts calories and loses weight, but does not become medically designated “underweight.” Although the body weight may seem acceptable in cases of atypical anorexia nervosa, the health risks are just as present, with nutritional imbalances and other health risks being just as common.

Another common symptom of anorexia nervosa is body dysmorphia or a distorted body image. People who’ve received a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa generally make great efforts to restrict the number of calories or the types of food they eat. They may also engage in excessive or compulsive exercise, to the point of injuring themselves. This serious mental health disorder can affect people of all ages, genders, races, and social backgrounds. However, it affects young women (from age 16 onwards, although there are examples of cases much earlier) disproportionately.

What Are the Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa?

While each person is different, some of the most common warning signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Refusal to eat certain foods going on diets despite being underweight
  • Avoiding public meals or finding excuses not to eat
  • An obsession or compulsive behaviors about food, dieting, exercise, counting calories, etc.
  • Cooking meals for others without eating
  • Refusal to eat meals around others, hiding or hoarding food
  • The inability to maintain a bodyweight that is appropriate for one’s age, height, and general build
  • Changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle
  • Muscle weakness and dizziness
  • Consistently finding reasons to skip mealtime or social situations that involve food

Why an Anorexia Nervosa Diagnosis Should Be Acted Upon Early

Normally speaking, medical doctors such as general practitioners can make a preliminary referral to a mental health professional or psychiatrist, but won’t make the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa themselves. Since many of the diagnostic criteria are related to behaviors, an expert in eating disorders must make the final call. However, once the diagnosis is made, there are many options for treatment. The key is stepping in and getting help as soon as possible.

Early intervention for someone with an anorexia nervosa diagnosis could mean the difference between life and death. Even among eating disorders, anorexia nervosa can have the highest mortality rate out of any known mental health condition. If it is ignored or goes untreated, it can lead to a number of both physical and psychological health risks.

It’s vital for families trying to help their loved ones to reach out to medical and psychiatric professionals when they suspect anorexia nervosa or another serious eating disorder is developing. As families choose the right anorexia nervosa recovery center for their loved ones, it’s important to look for a program that offers medical and psychological care to help ensure the best possible outcome.

What to Expect While in Eating Disorder Treatment

Eating disorder treatment centers have therapists, psychiatrists, medical staff like nurses, and doctors on hand to provide physical and emotional support to their clients. They can provide therapy for the emotional root causes of eating disorders and provide specialized cognitive retraining techniques like CBT to identify and eliminate disordered eating behaviors. Many centers put their focus on mindfulness, self-awareness, and nonjudgmental acceptance. This allows patients to objectively identify which of their thoughts and emotions are disordered, the first step to modifying them.

Food is also a central part of an eating disorder treatment program. Dieticians and nutritionists on staff are ready to provide nutritious meals and teach clients how to meal plan for themselves. Reconnecting to the joy of eating and eating until satisfied helps clients continue their recovered eating patterns after graduating from the program. These are all key aspects of maintaining recovery in the long run.

Anorexia Nervosa Aftercare: What Do Families Need to Know?

Before an individual discharges from an anorexia nervosa recovery center, they should have a complete aftercare plan set in place. Heading home and back into a regular routine without a solid aftercare plan could set the patient up for failure, with much greater odds for relapse. Most repetitive mental health disorders can be triggered by stress or other difficult situations. Because of the health risk and the high chance of stress-related relapse, a quality anorexia nervosa recovery center will make provisions to ensure aftercare is available.

The close friends and family of the graduating patient usually have the option to take part in the treatment process via family therapy sessions and training for providing support. They can learn how to handle a relapse, how to plan meals and share them without pressuring their loved one, how to provide emotional support without judging and gain a better understanding of their loved one’s eating disorder. Family support is the single best indicator of a person’s long-term recovery.

Committing to working through an aftercare plan is the best way to slowly transition back into day-to-day life after being discharged from treatment. Patients have the option for continued eating disorder counseling through day treatment services, group counseling sessions, family-based therapy, and more.

Eating disorder recovery is a long journey, and not necessarily an easy one. However, from diagnosis to discharge (and beyond), support is always available. If you or a loved one is suffering from anorexia nervosa or another eating disorder, reach out for assistance today.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, 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.
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