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Why Is Mindfulness Training a Major Part of a Multidisciplinary Eating Disorder Recovery?

Recovering from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa bulimia nervosa, or others can be a difficult and lengthy process. No single approach can heal every facet of a patient’s illness. That’s why a multidisciplinary approach is essential. This approach incorporates medical, nutritional, and psychiatric methods of treatment into one, individualized treatment plan.

The medical aspect of treatment includes various needs to correct the negative effects of prolonged disordered eating patterns – these can include stabilization, detox, 24-hour monitoring, and other acute care services in a licensed inpatient behavioral setting. A multidisciplinary eating disorder treatment program’s medical team can deal with diabulimia, pain syndromes, physical limitations, laxative abuse, bowel function normalization as well as medical devices such as J/G and NG feeding tubes, and insulin pumps.

Nutritionally speaking, a multidisciplinary approach will provide education on understanding and managing a variety of medical complications associated with eating disorders, including constipation, diarrhea, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, electrolyte imbalances, anemia, reflux, heartburn, cardiac abnormalities, amenorrhea, dental sensitivities, osteoporosis, hypoglycemia, and ketosis. Even more importantly, they teach meal planning, nutritional information changing the way patients think about nutrition by learning more about how your body functions and operates (including metabolism, digestion, the importance of calories).

In terms of psychiatric and emotional healing, the medical and nutritional facets are rounded out with a variety of therapeutic techniques that address both the patient’s eating disorder and any co-occurring disorders. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse are all common dual diagnoses in people with eating disorders. Thankfully, various techniques have been developed that can address both disorders. Many of these require training and practice in mindfulness.

Mindfulness’ Role in Behavioral Health

Because it allows people to identify and redirect negative or disordered thoughts, mindfulness plays a central role in the eating disorder treatment of any type. Most eating disorders are partially caused by body dysmorphia or the sense of dissatisfaction with one’s body and flawed perception of the body’s size. Mindfulness can counteract these tendencies by taking them on with clear eyes and a logical approach to self-scrutiny.

This state of being takes effort to achieve, however, and may require guidance from experts skilled in eating disorder counseling. Understanding the importance of mindfulness in residential eating disorder recovery can help patients commit to adopting this level of awareness in their daily lives as they work toward becoming recovered.

What Does “Mindfulness” Mean?

Mindfulness is an approach to life and how people experience it. It’s closely tied to meditation techniques in which a person can clear their mind and assess their thinking without judgment, taking each experience and thought as it comes. This state of mind allows participants to assess the inner critical voice that’s driving disordered eating. Then they can begin to address the feelings and thoughts that are causing harm and work toward debunking and eliminating them.

Mindfulness surrounds the simple act of directly experiencing life. It starts with eliminating the nagging thoughts and feelings that come with everything we do. For example, someone who needs residential anorexia nervosa treatment might sit down to a meal and have thoughts about how people are judging them for being “fat” or worry about how many calories each bite will be, and so on.  With mindfulness training, they’ll learn how to simply eat. No worries, no plans for the future, no self-doubt – it is important to simply witness the event and sensations without judgment.

It’s hardly an easy thing to achieve – even with help from a residential eating disorder facility that focuses on mindfulness training, it does take time to learn how to make your life a mindful one. Eating disorder counseling can help people in treatment set up the foundational skills they need to remain mindful of their surroundings and inner feelings.

Why Do Eating Disorder Counseling and Mindfulness Go Hand-in-Hand?

At an eating disorder treatment center that puts its focus on mindfulness, a variety of therapeutic methods can be used, including family therapy, group therapy, one-on-one sessions, and experiential therapies. Each of these presents an opportunity for a client to work on isolating their disordered thoughts and feelings and move beyond them.

Eating disorder treatment professionals will offer guidance and support for their clients as they work on learning how to live in the moment. They will introduce techniques, such as guided meditation, that help jumpstart the process of embracing mindfulness. Because people with eating disorders usually struggle with clouded and negative thought patterns when it comes to food and their bodies, the ability to recognize that these thoughts are flawed is essential to overcoming the disorder.

How Can Someone in Treatment Improve Their Mindfulness?

With mindfulness, people in eating disorder treatment centers can focus day by day on recovery and challenging negative thought patterns. However, many people in treatment have years of disordered thinking and avoidance to overcome – it’s a slow process.

Openness to change is the key. As with every mental health issue, the first step to overcoming an eating disorder is accepting that there is a problem and steeling yourself to change it. Upon accepting the necessity of mindfulness, it is much easier to learn and apply, especially when a client has left residential eating disorder treatment and is back in their daily life.

Mindfulness also comes easier when focusing on the positive, rather than letting negative, disordered thoughts rule the mind. Positive thought patterns can help transform perceptions and reframe potentially distressing situations into something a bit more manageable.

Putting Mindfulness into Practice

Several evidence-based therapeutic methods have some basis on mindful thinking and objective self-examination. They are used in a wide variety of behavioral health treatments, ranging from substance abuse treatment to borderline personality disorder. Of course, the major and minor eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, ARFID, diabulimia, bulimia nervosa, and OSFED all benefit from these techniques as well.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an empirically proven technique used for treatment among a wide variety of mental health disorders, is a client-therapist dynamic of guided thinking designed to isolate and negate negative thoughts and thinking patterns. For example, a person who turns to restrictive eating patterns when feeling especially depressed will work with their counselor to “talk through” the feelings and thoughts of depression without engaging in a disordered behavior as a response to those feelings.  Being able to experience these urges and accept them without acting on them is a prime example of living mindfully and applying these techniques to recovery.
  • Another such therapeutic technique is known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This technique consists of mindfulness training and emotional distress tolerance – which means, through training and discussion with the eating disorder counselor, the individual getting treatment learns to process the negative emotions which help to cause eating disorders.  These emotions can be processed in a way that doesn’t involve harmful behavior or self-harm, providing a grounded path to long-term eating disorder recovery
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a type of therapy that focuses on traumatic events in a person’s life and how that individual copes after experiencing such an event. CPT is often used in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The National Institutes of Health states that PTSD and eating disorders share similar features that include dissociation, impulsive behavior, and cognitive disturbances. According to the Center for Deployment Psychology, CPT includes several phases of treatment. CPT asks individuals to use mindfulness techniques to experience their trauma without indulging in the pain it causes, which allows them to understand the way it affects their behavior and emotions.

To some extent, mindfulness comes into play with experiential and alternative therapies as well. These therapies are not psychological, evidence-based methodologies like CBT or DBT, but instead are supplemental activities that help patients gain perspective on their feelings by experiencing new situations and activities. Some of these include:

  • Yoga, an activity that combines exercise and meditation, is an ideal mindfulness practice. It allows practitioners to simply be aware of their body and breathing while moving slowly into various positions developed over centuries. If CBT allows a person to examine their emotions objectively and with self-awareness, yoga allows for the same objectiveness and self-awareness through movement. It’s become a standard treatment at virtually every eating disorder treatment center.
  • Animal-assisted therapy, especially equine therapy, gives people a new perspective on their emotional state as well as providing an activity to lose themselves in. Although many animals can work with patients, we’ve found that horses in particular have a combination of calmness, power, and affection that helps people center their emotions. By caring for another living creature, new realizations about one’s own emotions can come to the forefront.
  • Art and music therapy are both commonplace at eating disorder treatment centers and other mental health treatment centers. They do not require prior training or any particular talent; the point of these experiential therapies is not to create great art, but instead to explore new avenues of expression. By creating art, a patient can enter a state of mindfulness where the creation is the only thing they are experiencing. In this form of therapy, emotional breakthroughs and radical self-honesty lead to new understandings of the roots of an eating disorder. They make great hobbies as well and can be continued long after eating disorder treatment ends.

Acquiring Eating Disorder Treatment and Achieving Mindfulness

To achieve mindfulness in eating disorder recovery, patients can acquire care from skilled providers at residential eating disorder treatment centers. These experts will help their patients challenge their disordered thought patterns and work toward becoming fully recovered. Reach out and find a center that specializes in mindfulness near you – there’s nothing to lose and a recovered life to gain.

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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