This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and here at the Youth Fairy we would like to highlight the role that talking therapy, and specifically the role that Solution Focused Therapy can play, in recovery from or prevention of an eating disorder. Bearing in mind that eating disorders are a serious mental illness which needs medical attention, we’d like to look at how complementary therapy, and especially Solution Focused Therapy (like all the Youth Fairies use), can play a positive part, alongside other professionals, in helping your young one to feel better.
As mentioned above, having an eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis which means your GP will be involved in making the diagnosis, and the recognised diagnosed disorders are:
- Anorexia Nervosa – an eating disorder where you feel a need to keep your weight as low as possible
- Bulimia Nervosa – a vicious cycle of binging and purging, triggered by things such as hunger, sadness or stress,
- Binge Eating Disorder – involves regularly eating a lot of food over a short period of time until you’re uncomfortably full
- OSFRED (Otherwise Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) – an umbrella term, people diagnosed with it may experience very different symptoms including any of the symptoms associated with bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder
- ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Feeding Intake Disorder) – characterised by a pattern of eating that avoids certain foods or food groups entirely and/or is restricted in quantity such as eating small amounts
- Orthorexia Nervosa – eating disorder characterized by an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food
- Compulsive Exercise – When a person exercises so much that it negatively affects their physical or mental health, or disrupts other aspects of their life, health experts call this compulsive exercise. Compulsive exercise often occurs alongside eating disorders
- FEDNEC (Feeding and Eating Disorders Not Elsewhere Categorised )- Sometimes people don’t fit into any one of the three categories above, but their thoughts and behaviours fit with the generalised definition of eating disorders. (NHS, and Beat Eating Disorders)
“Many people have odd eating habits, but a true eating disorder is “extreme shape and weight control behaviour,” which in turn is caused by excessive concerns about your weight. Most people with eating disorders have poor self-worth and perfectionist opinions about how they should look and what they should weigh.” (National Centre for Eating Disorders)
These disorders have a serious and debilitating effect on the person’s health, not just their mental health, but often affecting things like heart rate, digestion, hormones, liver and brain function. Because of the seriousness of these diagnoses, a Solution Focused Therapist will ensure that the client is under the care of a team who will monitor your young person’s weight, food intake and various health screening which is vital to recovery. Once your young person is nourished, and being monitored, then mental health support can be a key step in recovery. This is where a complimentary therapy like Solution Focused Therapy can help.
So how can working with a Solution Focused Therapist complement and support you and your young one with what can be a debilitating mental illness such as an eating disorder?
Solution Focused Therapists focus on solutions. It is a positive, forward-thinking, talking therapy with a strong basis in neuroscience.
We can help your young one to:
- Build confidence
- Focus on the positive things in their life
- Build up their feelings of self-worth
- Imagine an outcome when the eating disorder isn’t present
- Build resilience
- Build frustration tolerance
- Recognise what they can do to increase positive, mentally healthy brain function
- Gain a healthy sense of control in their lives
Eating disorders often begin with a desire to be thinner, with a diet, but not all dieters will get an eating disorder. This is because an eating disorder is not a diet, but rather a response to stress, a coping mechanism gone haywire. Oftentimes the stress that builds up in one’s life is a reaction to trauma, a reaction to big changes in one’s life, a lack of emotional resilience and usually is accompanied by poor self-esteem. When do these things tend to build up in a person’s life? – often during teenage-hood.
The NHS says that, “Anyone can get an eating disorder, but teenagers between 13 and 17 are mostly affected.” (Overview- Eating Disorders- NHS) In many cases working with a Solution Focused Therapist can complement and support a young person as they work through the anxieties and fears associated with recovery.
In Solution Focused Therapy we often speak of having a Stress Bucket, a place where negative thoughts get converted into anxiety and stored. Bearing in mind the amount of thoughts each person has in a day, if those are negative thoughts, the stress bucket can soon fill up. And like a pressure cooker, if our stress bucket gets too full, its going to overflow or burst.
Having too much stress in one’s life, the overflowing bucket, forces a person into a more primitive part of our brain. The primitive part of our brain will detect the stress as a danger, and we will respond by being angry, anxious or depressed or sometimes a combination of all three.
When we are in this primitive part of our brain, this is where sometimes maladaptive habits get formed, coping skills for dealing with overwhelming stress. One area where these maladaptive habits develop is around controlling food. So, in a sense, restricting food or binging on food can become a coping skill for dealing with stress, but as we can see, a coping skill with a very dangerous outcome.
A Solution Focused Therapist will work on lowering the stress in your young person’s stress bucket, by encouraging them to embrace a more positive mindset.
How do we do that? We ask our clients to keep a positive diary, a place to write down the positive events in their lives. We focus specifically on three areas of positivity, known as the Three P’s.
The Three P’s are:
- Positive Thinking- this is massively important to improve self-esteem, which will have been quite low when in the grips of an eating disorder. Positive thinking will help your young one to make a regular practice of building self-compassion.
- Positive Interaction- we are better as a tribe, and interacting positively with others is what we are hard-wired to do. This will often have to be built up, as a person with an eating disorder may have hid themselves away from others through shame, or guilt.
- Positive Activity-depending on the conditions of the eating disorder, activity may be physical activity or it may be creative activity. We are meant to do things that bring us joy and fulfilment, so focusing on the next small step of what we can do can really help.
Doing any of the Three P’s will steadily increase the production a neurotransmitter, Serotonin, in our brain. Serotonin helps us to stabilise our mood, to feel braver, stronger, more capable and it is even a pain killer. Serotonin also increases our feelings of wellbeing and calmness, helps to control impulsive and obsessional behaviours, it even suppresses the need for carbohydrates (i.e. binging).
Everything in our brain works on a principle of homeostasis, that means our brains work to maintain a balance of chemicals. When someone has had an eating disorder often that balance becomes tipped, either due to a severe lack of serotonin if restricting food, or an unnatural overload of serotonin if binging. By focusing on healthy ways to build serotonin naturally through the three p’s we can begin to even out what had become imbalanced, and to restore a healthy flow of serotonin again.
Everything we do in Solution Focused Therapy is to encourage your young ones to engage the left pre-frontal cortex, (a very positive part of the brain) to engage their minds in finding the solutions. By bringing your young one back up into the pre-frontal cortex, it can reduce activity in the primitive part of the brain, which only relied on doing the same repetitive thing as a coping mechanism to the overload of stress in the first place.
It can even help your child to sleep better, and because we are helping them to sleep, we are further reducing the stress in the stress bucket, hence reducing the activity in the primitive mind.
There is a chance that seeing a Solution Focused Therapist, before the eating disorder takes hold, can have an immensely positive effect, in fact getting help early on is key. Of course, your Solution Focused Therapist will insist that the GP is involved from the start to be sure that the right care is being taken, but with the right care and support, you may begin to see real change.
To find out more about eating disorders see:
For further help and support, visit https://www.theyouthfairy.com/fairies/ to find a therapist local to you.