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What to Expect from Eating Disorder Counselling

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Many people who are about to go into eating disorder treatment are unsure what they should expect. It can be intimidating to go into an unfamiliar place and make major changes in one’s lifestyle, even if they are necessary. This guide will help dissipate some of those fears and anxieties, with any luck.

Here’s what you can expect from eating disorder counselling:

Learning about coping skills

Many disordered eating behaviors are less about food or even about body weight or shape, but instead are coping mechanisms for triggers such as negative emotions or past trauma. Eating disorder treatment often centers around identifying and replacing these disordered coping mechanisms with healthier, mindful skills.

The kinds of coping skills that people learn during residential treatment include:

  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Spending time out in nature
  • Hobbies
  • Self-care
  • Positive affirmations

Learning how to incorporate mindfulness

Eating disorder treatment centers usually prepare individuals to learn new coping skills by introducing mindfulness training. The training sessions lead individuals through exercises that allow them to objectively ‘live in the moment’ and assess their feelings without judgment. Many people with eating disorders have difficulties understanding that their thoughts and behaviors concerning eating are disordered, so this process is very important in becoming and remaining recovered.

Regularly using mindfulness techniques can help individuals identify and combat negative thought patterns and urges as they arise. With the quick identification of these challenges, they can select from their coping skills toolbox to find the best way to manage. Effectively using mindfulness in this manner takes work, so individuals start training early and practice often.

Identifying and counteracting triggers

Everyone with an eating disorder faces certain triggers that cause them to engage in disordered eating behaviors, although there is no standard “road map” – everyone is different. Eating disorder treatment professionals work with their clients to determine exactly what those triggers are. Following that, they can work together to build preemptive measures to avoid allowing the triggers to take over.

As mentioned, triggers are deeply personal and no two people will share the exact same set of triggers. However, common triggers include:

  • Hearing about new diets
  • Witnessing body shaming
  • Eating meals in public
  • Experiencing loss or failure
  • Trouble with relationships

With a detailed list of all their triggers, individuals move forward with the exposure exercises that will relieve them of the distress those situations cause. This allows a measured, mindful response to stress, preventing the urge to use disordered behaviors to cope.

Nutritional training and exposure therapy

Most eating disorder treatment centers include a robust nutritional segment as part of their programme. This normally includes a team of dieticians and nutritionists who can work with clients to first restore their nutritional balance (if necessary after a prolonged eating disorder). After stabilization and the introduction of mindful trigger resistance and coping skills, they’ll begin to impart nutritional skills as part of the programme. These include understanding the science about how nutrition works, removal of self-imposed diet rules and restrictions, and eventually meal planning and preparations.

As part of this latter stage of nutritional therapy, exposure therapy techniques might be introduced. Exposure therapy is a common technique used in all kinds of mental health treatments; people, in controlled circumstances, face the things they fear or avoid. For eating disorder treatment, this often means doing activities that include food and eating. Common examples include going grocery shopping, preparing meals and eating them in groups, enjoying fatty or sugary foods they may have avoided, and eating in restaurants. All told, exposure therapy helps prepare clients to return home and resume regular eating patterns.

Aftercare and building a support system

After their time in residential or outpatient eating disorder treatment, individuals can still face distressing situations that can cause setbacks. Usually, there is an aftercare program in place. These programs offer many support resources to their graduates and their family members.

The basic online resources range from digital articles to full webinars. Individuals and their families can log into the system to review this information and gain the knowledge they need to move forward. If individuals need the direct support of their treatment team, they can return to the treatment center for therapy sessions.

These eating disorder counseling sessions are available in individual, group, and family formats to serve a wide range of needs. Individuals can select from the available counseling types to pick the one that will help the most. Depending on their selected format, they can collaborate with their peers, renew familial support or simply address personal challenges on a one-on-one basis with their therapists.

Elena Deeley did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.

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