Fasting and Eating Disorders: A Slippery Slope

Monday, September 28, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is considered the most important holiday in the Jewish faith and is typically observed by a day of fasting and religious services.

Every September, as Yom Kippur approaches, I engage in conversations with my Jewish patients and their families about observing this holiday.   Families that are dealing with eating disorders frequently ask me if they, or their child, should fast for Yom Kippur.  I believe strongly that anyone who has an eating disorder, is predisposed to developing an eating disorder, or has a history of an eating disorder, should not fast for any reason.   So my answer, to anyone who falls into these categories, is a resounding NO!

Individuals with illnesses, including those with active eating disorders, are exempted, by Jewish law, from fasting. But what about those who have recovered from eating disorders, or those who are predisposed to eating disorders but have not (yet) developed a full-blown illness? Fasting poses a grave but hidden risk to these individuals as well.

Here’s why: most eating disorders are triggered by a negative energy balance, which is a period of time in which a person is consuming fewer calories than they are expending.  People who are not predisposed to eating disorders may feel uncomfortable, weak, tired, or “hangry” while fasting, will overindulge in food to break the fast, and then will promptly return to their normal eating habits. 

For people who have a genetic predisposition towards eating disorders, regardless of whether the eating disorder is currently active, a negative energy balance often takes a more sinister turn.  These individuals often feel better when they are fasting, and fasting very quickly becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.  The less they eat, the less they want to eat, until it gets to the point that they are not able to bring themselves to eat at all without significant external support.

In our culture, most eating disorders are initially triggered by an intentional negative energy balance such as dieting or a conscious attempt to “eat healthy” (which, sadly, is often a euphemism for dieting).  But some eating disorders, especially in preadolescents and males, are initially triggered by an unintentional energy deficit through illness, dental procedures, athletic training, growth spurts, stress, depression, or religious fasting.  Many people who recover from eating disorders will wisely avoid dieting, but experience relapses nonetheless through unintentional negative energy balances.

People who fast for religious reasons may have no intention of altering their body weight or shape, and may be truly devoted to observing their faith.  But the body doesn’t know the difference.  It simply registers that a negative energy balance is occurring and responds as it is genetically programmed to do.  Once the switch is flipped by a period of negative energy balance, the eating disorder may be set in motion by a cascade of disordered thoughts and behaviors accompanied by increasing difficulty eating.

Some individuals in the Jewish community who have recovered from eating disorders eschew fasting on Yom Kippur and have found other meaningful ways to observe the holiday. For those who are predisposed to eating disorders but want to observe Yom Kippur, I often recommend a different type of fast.  Perhaps a technology fast, such as going 24 hours without a smartphone or without social media.  These types of fasts still convey a sense of deprivation, but without the dangerous possibility of triggering an eating disorder relapse.  In fact, many people find that going without their phone or their social media for a day allows them to be more fully present in the moment and dramatically reduces their stress levels.

Metamorphosis: Long-Term Therapy with Young Adults

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the opportunity to engage with patients in long-term therapy.  In my practice today, I have a number of patients who began treatment with me years ago, in adolescence, and are now in their 20’s.  These patients first presented in my office with their parents during middle school or high school, suffering from severe eating disorders or depression or debilitating anxiety or, in some cases, all of the above.  Some entered treatment kicking and screaming; others reluctant but resigned; still others wanting help and suffering desperately but requiring immense parental support to stay afloat.

 In many cases, these adolescent patients received intensive Family-Based Treatment for six months or a year or more.  In other cases, the teenage patients received individual Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with active parental involvement.   All of them made substantial progress in treatment.  The majority recovered fully from their initial presenting diagnosis.  Those who have not recovered fully are doing significantly better, living independent, fulfilling lives, but still experiencing symptoms and receiving ongoing care to keep their illness at bay.  Now, years later, some of them continue with weekly therapy sessions.  Others come in once or twice a month, or perhaps biannually like dental cleanings (we call this “mental hygiene”).  Still others elect come in on an “as needed” basis, scheduling a few sessions here and there to help them cope with life events, navigate relationships, manage stress, or deal skillfully with bouts of depression or anxiety. 

What unites these incredible young men and women is the fact that they have taken full responsibility for their well-being.  They have chosen to engage in long-term individual therapy as an act of self-care.  Through their adolescent suffering, they have become acutely aware of their susceptibility to mental illness.  They are choosing to receive therapy not only to prevent relapse of illness but also to pursue optimal health.   Many of these young adults have chosen to abstain from drugs and alcohol, even as their peers regularly smoke pot and drink to excess.  Many of them have adopted consistent home practices of meditation or yoga.  They make conscious, health-promoting choices when it comes to sleep, nutrition, stress management, and physical activity.  When faced with an important decision about which graduate program to pursue, which job offer to take, which city to live in, or even which person to date, they carefully consider the impact of these choices on their quality of life.

Engaging in long-term therapy with patients like these involves a number of gradual but significant transitions for all members of the therapeutic relationship: the patient, the parents, and me.   For the parents and for me, there is the progression from the crisis management of an acutely ill adolescent to the joy of stepping back into a supportive role for young adult in his own quest for greater levels of well-being.  The parents and I often begin our relationship communicating multiple times per week to put out fires and to ensure that we are in lock-step as we form a circle of safety around a suicidal or eating disordered patient.  As the patient gradually assumes responsibility for her own well-being (which often takes several years for those with adolescent-onset mental illness), communication between parents and me subsides into an occasional email or phone call.   The patient is now a much healthier, more mature young adult, and is trusted to schedule, attend, participate meaningfully in her own therapy sessions.  In many cases, she pays for her own treatment as well.

The therapy itself goes through a significant evolution as I shift from being directive and prescriptive, setting firm limits around dangerous or debilitating symptoms, to engaging with the patient in deep psychological work and collaborative goal setting.  For the patient, there is the very welcome shift from being told what she must do, in therapy and at home, to deciding what issues are important to her and taking the initiative to seek support, both therapeutic and familial, in achieving personally relevant goals.    For the patient, this shift brings with it a transformation from a defensive posture (as evidenced by panicking, shutting down, or lashing out in therapy and at home) to a stance of openness and receptivity (as evidenced by increased self-disclosure and self-awareness along with the display of more vulnerable emotions). 

I cannot begin to describe how rewarding it feels to support a frightened, malnourished, deeply depressed teenager as she blossoms into a healthy, confident, independent young woman who is attending college or graduate school in another state, working at an exciting full-time job, getting married, or giving birth to her first child.  It is fulfilling beyond words to join with young adult patients in the journey of long-term wellness as they clarify their personal values, decide who they want to be in this world, and take concrete steps towards achieving their dreams.

Those of you who have engaged in long-term therapy, either as a therapist, as a patient, know well how deeply personal and meaningful these relationships can be.  There is a level of emotional intimacy that surpasses even that between spouses, between parent and child, or between the best of friends.   In many ways, engaging in long-term therapy with self-motivated young adults is the polar opposite of Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa.   For most patients in my practice, the former would not have been possible without the latter.   

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders (2009 – 2017)

Description of the Sample

This analysis includes all patients with a primary diagnosis of a mood disorder who participated in an evaluation followed by a minimum of one therapy session with me between the start of my practice in 2009 and spring 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample.

The sample includes 34 individuals (29 females and 5 males) who ranged in age from 12 – 59 years old, with a median age of 20.  The majority of patients in this sample (65%) had a primary diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder.   Other primary diagnoses included Unspecified Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and Persistent Depressive Disorder (formerly known as Dysthymia).

More than half of these patients (56%) had a secondary diagnosis.  The most common secondary diagnoses were anxiety disorders. Other secondary diagnoses in this sample included ADHD, eating disorders, and PTSD.

Approximately 30% of the sample had a history of psychiatric hospitalization, most commonly for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, prior to staring treatment with me.

Description of Treatment Received

The length of treatment varied dramatically, from one week to 3.7 years.  Number of sessions attended also varied dramatically, from 1 session to 135 sessions.  The broad range of treatment duration and sessions attended reflects the reality that some individuals decided not to proceed with treatment after one or two sessions, whereas other individuals attended sessions off and on, as needed, for the duration of their high school or college years.  The average duration of treatment was 11.9 months and the average number of sessions attended was 28.  So, a typical patient with a mood disorder attended approximately 28 sessions over the course of one year.

The type of treatment received was tailored to the individual patient, based on his or her presenting symptoms, circumstances, age, and preferences.  Forty-one percent of patients received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), 18% received a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills-based approach (NOT a comprehensive DBT program), 30% received integration of CBT and supportive counseling, and 11% interpersonal psychotherapy or supportive counseling.

Level of family involvement varied depending on the patient’s age, presenting symptoms, preferences, and living circumstances.  For the purposes of this assessment, high level of family involvement means that at least one family member attended all or most sessions with the patient.  Moderate level of family involvement means that family members attended some sessions and maintained ongoing communication with me throughout treatment.   Low level of family involvement means that at a family member was involved in the evaluation and/or at least one session, but most sessions were individual.  Among all patients in this sample, 18% had a high level of family involvement, 21% had a moderate level of family involvement, 18% had a low level of family involvement, and 44% had no family involvement.  Degree of family involvement was higher, in general, for adolescent patients than for adult patients, with all patients under age 18 having at least some family involvement in their treatment.  Fifty percent of adolescent patients (under age 18) had a high level of family involvement, while 42% had a moderate level of family involvement and the remaining 8% had a low level of family involvement.

Nearly ¾ of patients saw a psychiatrist and took psychotropic medications during treatment.  Nearly ¼ of patients were hospitalized during treatment, most commonly for suicidal ideation or suicidal gestures.

Treatment Completion and Recovery Rates

Of all patients who began treatment with me for a mood disorder, 15% achieved complete recovery, 24% made significant progress, 41% made some progress, 15% made no progress, and 6% regressed.  For a detailed description of what terms such as “complete recovery” and “significant progress” mean, please see this blog post from 2013.

Eighteen percent of patients completed a full course of treatment with me.  Completing a “full course of treatment” was defined as a mutual ending in which the patient, his/her family (in cases where family was involved) and I mutually agree that treatment goals have been met and treatment is no longer needed.  Of these “treatment completers,” 83% achieved full recovery and the remaining 17% made significant progress towards treatment goals.

The length of time required to complete a full course of treatment varied dramatically from person to person, depending on symptom severity and progress in treatment.  Time required to complete treatment ranged from 1 month to 3 years, with a mean of 16.6 months.  Likewise, number of sessions required to complete treatment varied dramatically between individuals.  Number of sessions attended for treatment completers ranged from 4 – 96 sessions, with an average of 23 sessions.  So, on average, individuals who were most successful in treatment (e.g., those who completed treatment and achieved full remission from their mood disorders) attended an average of 23 sessions over the course of 16 months.

Fifteen percent of patients moved to another geographic location during their treatment (either to attend college or to live elsewhere permanently), prior to completing a full course of treatment with me.  As of their last session with me, 60% of these “movers” had made significant progress in their treatment and the remaining 40% had made some progress.  These individuals were referred to other treatment providers in near their universities or new homes for continued treatment.

The dropout rate for patients with mood disorders was fairly high: 50% of patients discontinued treatment with me prematurely.  As of their last session with me, 18% of these “discontinuers” had made significant progress towards treatment goals, 59% had made some progress, and 24% had made no progress.   On average, individuals who discontinued treatment sooner made less progress, while those who remained in treatment longer made more progress towards their treatment goals.   Three quarters of the individuals who made no progress dropped out of treatment after just one or two sessions, and the remaining one quarter dropped out after 5 sessions.  In contrast, those who made significant progress prior to dropping out of treatment attended an average of 20 sessions.

I do not have data on what happens to patients after they discontinue treatment, so this is purely speculation, but I believe several factors contribute to the high dropout rate among patients with mood disorders.  First, depression frequently interferes with a person’s motivation and ability to carry out tasks, and tends to make people hopeless and pessimistic.  Individuals with these symptoms may have a more difficult time persisting towards a goal, such as scheduling appointments and continuing with treatment over a number of months, and they may feel less hopeful about having a positive outcome in treatment.  Second, some patients and families may be satisfied with “good enough,” and may drop out of treatment after making good progress but before achieving all treatment goals.  In contrast, I have high standards for my patients: I believe that full recovery is possible for most people, and when full recovery does not seem achievable, then a full and meaningful life with well-managed symptoms is an alternative good outcome.  I work diligently with patients and their families in pursuit of these goals.

Eighteen percent of patients with mood disorders were referred to other clinicians who could better meet their needs.  I made these referrals when a patient was not progressing in treatment, and when it did not appear likely that they would make progress in the near future.  As of their last session with me, 17% of referred patients had made significant progress, 33% had made some progress, 17% had made no progress, and 33% had regressed.

Predictors of Treatment Outcome

Not surprisingly, completion of a full course of treatment emerged as a strong predictor of positive treatment outcome.  83% of individuals who completed treatment achieved full recovery, while the remaining 17% made significant progress towards treatment goals.  None of the individuals who discontinued treatment prematurely achieved full recovery.

Another strong predictor of positive treatment outcome in this sample was referral source.  Eighty percent of individuals who achieved full recovery were self-referred (e.g., they found my practice through an online search), while the remaining 20% were referred by word of mouth (e.g., by a friend).    In contrast, none of the individuals who were referred to my practice by their psychiatrist, pediatrician, or another therapist completed a full course of treatment or achieved full recovery, although a number of them made significant progress.  My interpretation of this finding is that individuals who proactively sought my services of their own volition may be especially dedicated to improving their mental health, more invested in their treatment, and thus more likely to persevere through a full course of treatment and achieve recovery.   In the case of self-referred adolescents, their parents were the ones who actually brought their children to treatment.  These parents, on the whole, were particularly attuned to their child’s needs and struggles, researched their child’s symptoms and the variety of treatment approaches available, sought my services proactively, and were especially motivated to help their child recover.  Perhaps this parental conscientiousness, attunement, and empowerment helped facilitate recovery for their children.

Level of family involvement in treatment predicted treatment completion and full recovery for adolescent patients but not for adult patients.  All of the adolescents who completed treatment and recovered had moderate or high levels of family involvement.  In contrast, 75% of the adults who completed treatment and achieved full recovery had no family involvement in their treatment, while the remaining 25% had a low level of family involvement.

Individuals who took psychotropic medication were somewhat less likely to recover than those who did not: 40% of individuals who achieved full recovery were taking medication during treatment, whereas 76% of individuals who did not achieve full recovery were taking medication during treatment.  It is unlikely that taking psychotropic medication caused patients to have a worse outcome.  I believe the most likely explanation for this finding is that taking psychotropic medication is a marker of severity: individuals with more severe forms of mood disorders (e.g., Bipolar Disorder, Severe Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder) are more likely to need medication and are perhaps less likely to achieve complete remission of symptoms.

Hospitalization during treatment emerged as a predictor of less favorable outcome.  None of the individuals who were hospitalized during their treatment with me completed a full course of treatment or achieved full recovery.  It is unlikely that being hospitalized actually caused patients to quit treatment or caused them to make less progress in their treatment.  It is more likely that hospitalization, like taking psychotropic medication, is a marker of severity, and those individuals with more severe illnesses are less likely to experience complete remission of symptoms.

The following variables did NOT predict treatment outcome: age, gender, ethnicity, duration of illness, diagnosis, presence of co-morbid diagnoses, rate paid for services, type of treatment received, or history of hospitalization prior to starting treatment.

Fighting Stigma: The Gift of a New Generation

Somehow, sometime in the past several years, I crossed some invisible line from “young adult” to simply “adult.”  Polite strangers call me “ma’am” at least as often as they call me “miss.”  Shopping at Forever 21 now seems scandalously inappropriate.  And I can’t remember the last time I was still awake to watch Saturday Night Live.  Now that I seem to be old enough to complain about the younger generation (They think women’s empowerment is posting bikini-clad selfies!  They use social media excessively! Their pivotal relationship conversations take place over text message!), it seems only fair that I also recognize the strengths of this cohort.  And they do have tremendous strengths.

Teenagers and young adults these days, for the most part, have grown up in an era where it is socially acceptable, even encouraged, to speak openly about mental health issues.  Just about every high school and college student who walks into my office has at least a couple of friends with mental health diagnoses.   Most of my patients have one or more members of their extended family, if not their immediate family, who has dealt with a mental illness.   And they know this because they talk openly about it.

And that excessive use of social media I complained about a minute ago?  Well, social media has allowed famous people to speak candidly to a wide audience about their experiences with mental illness, seeking treatment, and ultimately recovering.   Actress Kristen Bell has struggled with depression.   Writer/producer/actress Lena Dunham has received treatment for OCD.  Singer Demi Lovato has spoken openly about her struggles with bipolar disorder and her recovery from an eating disorderJohn Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, has chronic anxiety which he is able to control with therapy and medication.  Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a diagnosis of ADHD.  These individuals have been extremely successful in their professions and have had the courage to speak publicly about their psychiatric problems.

Even more courageous than these celebrities, though, are the regular people who attend school, play sports, hold down jobs, pay bills, raise families, volunteer in their communities, and maintain friendships while also dealing with mental illness.  These are the people who have a lot to lose from the stigma surrounding mental health issues.  These are also the people who have the most to gain from breaking down the stigma.

The younger generation is fighting this stigma.  Australia’s National Youth Mental Health foundation has created an organization called Headspace dedicated to supporting adolescents and young adults with mental illnesses as well as combating stigma surrounding these issues.  In the UK, Prince William, Princess Kate, and Prince Harry have created Heads Together, a charity dedicated to fighting stigma surrounding mental illness and improving the mental well-being of all citizens.  Here in the US, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is running a Stigma-Free campaign.

The message of these organizations is simple and straightforward: mental illness is common and treatable.  Mental health problems are as much a part of the human condition as any other health problem.  Untreated mental illness can have dire effects on the individual, on the family, on the community, and on society as a whole.  People who have psychiatric diagnoses can overcome them and live fulfilling, successful, meaningful lives.  Learn about it.  Talk about it.  Seek treatment when needed, and support others in doing so as well.  Silence and shame help no one.

I can’t recall ever hearing these messages as a teenager or young adult.  If these messages existed at all back in my day, they were eclipsed by the OJ Simpson trial, overshadowed by the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, drowned out by the Spice Girls and ignored amidst episodes of Friends.  It is an honor and a privilege for me to treat the teens of this generation, who live their lives with more knowledge, understanding, and acceptance than the generation before them.

If you’d like to read an interesting perspective from a highly experienced clinician from a previous generation who has over 40 years of experience treating anxiety and eating disorders, see Dr. Paula Levine’s blog.

Exercise and Eating Disorders: It’s Not What You Think

Exercise very often plays a role in the development of restrictive eating disorders, particularly Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Some people view exercise as “a form of purging” or “a way to get rid of calories.” These explanations seem to make sense in light of modern western society’s views on exercise, similar to the theory that people with AN restrict their calories in order to conform to society’s thin ideal. But like the thin ideal theory, the “exercise purging” theory is an erroneous attempt to make sense of a puzzling symptom in the context of modern society.

In AN, excessive exercise, just like food restriction, is a biologically-based symptom, driven by something beyond conscious control or awareness. Patients do not exercise “to burn calories,” although they may insist that burning calories is their motivation. Consider, for example, the fact that even patients who know they are too thin are motivated to gain weight (yes, such patients do exist), often cannot stop themselves from moving unless they are forced to do so. Young children with AN are especially susceptible to the drive to exercise even though they have no idea what calories are or how to burn them.

A little history may help to put this into context. People did not really exercise for the purposes of physical fitness and attractiveness prior to the “exercise boom” of the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, hyperactivity was a symptom of AN long before Jane Fonda’s exercise videos found their way into American living rooms.

The nineteenth-century British Physician William Gull, the first clinician to describe AN medically, was surprised by the seemingly boundless energy that his anorexic patients possessed despite their emaciated state. In his 1874 paper entitled Anorexia Nerovsa, he wrote the following description of a young anorexic girl: “The patient complained of no pain, but was restless and active…it seemed hardly possible that a body so wasted could undergo the exercise which seemed agreeable.” Clearly, this young woman was not motivated by the pursuit of a thinner body, as the idea of exercising to “burn calories” would not emerge until a century later.

Animal research has shown that the hyperactivity commonly associated with AN is rooted in neurobiology and may serve an adaptive evolutionary purpose. For example, activity-based anorexia can be experimentally induced in rats which, like humans, evolved as opportunistic omnivorous foragers. When food-deprived lab rats are given free access to a running wheel, they become hyperactive, lose large amounts of weight, and will often die unless they are removed from these experimental conditions. I highly doubt that these rats were running excessively to purge calories, ward off obesity, or pursue some unrealistic standard of rodent beauty.

So why would AN, which leads to numerous health problems, infertility, and death, remain in our gene pool for tens of thousands of years? Shan Gusinger, an evolutionary biologist and a psychologist, posits that AN has evolved in humans as a means of helping us flee from food-depleted environments. The restless energy, grandiosity, and lack of awareness of one’s starved body allowed prehistoric anorexics to lead their tribes in migrations from food-depleted areas to plentiful ones.

Once the anorexic leader and her tribe arrived in a plentiful environment, the tribe feasted, pressuring the anorexic leader to indulge in food with them. In the absence of modern society’s thin ideal and without our modern obesity hysteria, prehistoric anorexics may have been able to allow their families to feed them, restoring their health and fertility. Even if the anorexic herself died of her condition or was rendered infertile, her close genetic relatives survived and reproduced, thus ensuring the continuity of AN into the next generation.

In our modern world, where children are encouraged to exercise more and make “healthy” (e.g. lower calorie) food choices as early as kindergarten, it is no wonder that AN is still around. During the pre-teen years, when rapid vertical growth and pubertal development demand extra energy, girls and boys are hit hard with the social pressures to be thin (for girls) or lean and ripped (for boys). The rapid weight gain that is necessary for growth and development is feared and despised in these growing children (and often, sadly, in their parents and pediatricians).

Adding add fuel to the fire, the pre-teen years are when intense and time-consuming athletic training begins. Competitive sports provide socially-applauded outlets for the young anorexic’s hyperactivity. No one bats an eye at the 12-year-old dancer who spends hours each evening at her studio in preparation for her next audition, or the 11-year-old boy who plays multiple back-to-back games each weekend with his elite travelling soccer team. Meanwhile, these children are making “healthy food choices,” consuming too few calories and fats to keep up with normal growth, let alone intense daily exercise.

In these vulnerable children, their vertical growth is stunted, their pubertal development is halted, and their intense athletic drive is praised by adults. And before you know it, they have fallen down the rabbit hole and developed full-blown AN. In this way, hyperactivity serves as both a precipitating factor and a perpetuating factor in the development of AN.

In my next post, I will discuss the role of exercise in eating disorder recovery.

Let’s Get Physical: Exercise in the Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders

As the Olympic Winter Games are commencing tomorrow in Sochi, I feel inspired to write about the role of physical activity in mental health. This post will focus specifically on exercise in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise improves mood in people with mild to moderate depression. For those with severe depression or bipolar disorder, exercise alone is rarely sufficient, but exercise can play an adjunct role in helping patients recover and prevent relapse.

We know from Newton’s law of motion that an object at rest stays at rest unless a force acts upon it, and an object in motion stays in motion unless some force makes it stop. The same is true for human bodies. Paradoxically, sedentary people tend to have less energy and active people tend to have more.

Now, of course this begs the question of the chicken or the egg – it is likely that people become sedentary because they have little energy or stay active because they have a surplus. This is true. People seem to have “set points” for activity level just as they do for weight and mood. That being said, physical activity has an almost immediate effect on mood and energy level. Over time, consistent exercise helps to stabilize moods, improve sleep, reduce stress, and enhance motivation to continue moving.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage my patients who suffer from mood disorders or anxiety disorders to exercise regularly. In my opinion, exercise is every bit as important as therapy, medication, and sleep when it comes to mood and anxiety disorders.

As I have emphasized in previous posts, the mind is a series of conscious functions carried out by the brain, and the brain is part of the body. Physical health and mental health are one in the same. Despite what society, popular wisdom, and health insurance companies may tell us, there is no actual difference between a physical illness and a mental one. When you exercise your body, you are exercising your brain.

Unlike therapy or medication, exercise is cheap or even free. Unlike medication, which can have unpleasant or dangerous side effects, exercise is generally safe so long as you do it sensibly and moderately. Unlike therapy, which requires another person and an appointment, exercise can be done alone if you choose at a time that suits your schedule. Unlike therapy, which is typically one-on-one and indoors, exercise can be enjoyed inside or outside with your family, friends, classmates, or teammates.

Numerous times, I have been amazed at how much exercise improves my patients’ mental health. This is especially true for people who have historically been sedentary and embark on a new exercise routine as part of their treatment plan. For example, I am working with a 15-year-old girl whom I’ll call Elsa who suffered from severe depression and crippling anxiety. When I met Elsa last year, she hated exercise and barely had the energy to get out of bed. After months of encouraging her to try different enjoyable physical activities, she finally started biking with her mom and jogging with her neighbor. She is now in full remission from her depression, making excellent progress in tackling her anxiety, and training for her first 5K. She now wakes up at 7:00 am with plenty of energy and really enjoys exercising. I am so proud of her.

One of the more challenging aspects of incorporating exercise into a patient’s treatment plan is that sometimes the mental illness itself is part of the reason why the patient is inactive. Depressed people tend to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They feel unmotivated and chronically exhausted. Clearly, it is a challenge for them to do essential things like get dressed and go to school, let alone something “extra” and “optional” like exercise.

For these patients, I use a behavioral technique called behavioral activation. Here’s how it works: we agree upon a small, realistic exercise goal such as walking for 10 minutes three evenings a week. [Elsa’s initial idea was to do the Insanity DVDs she saw on an infomercial. Given that she hadn’t exercised in years, I told her that this idea was, frankly, insane, and I suggested something more moderate.] I have the patient choose an activity they enjoy (or at least one that they don’t hate) and a time of day when they’re likely to follow through (for example, not at 5:00 AM if they aren’t a morning person).

When possible and feasible, I encourage patients to exercise socially by attending a class, joining a sports team, taking lessons, or doing something active outdoors with their families. We make this activity part of their weekly schedule, writing it down (or, often, putting it in their smart phone) as if it were any other appointment or commitment. Most of the time, the patient achieves their initial goal because it is small, realistic, specific, and planned.

Achieving this initial exercise goal creates a feeling of success and personal satisfaction and enhances the person’s motivation to keep going. In addition, they experience a bit of a mood boost from the activity itself. Once the patient achieves the initial exercise goal, it is increased a little bit in frequency or duration.

Using the example above, the patient may walk for 20 minutes during the second week and 30 minutes during the third week. This gradual increase in frequency and duration continues for a number of weeks or months. Eventually, the patient has incorporated regular exercise into her lifestyle. The stress reduction, mood enhancement, and improvement in fitness level enhance her internal motivation to continue exercising.

Anxiety can also interfere with a patient’s plans to exercise. Many people who experience panic attacks are afraid of the physical sensations that result from exercise (rapid breathing, increased heartbeat, sweating), which closely resemble those of a panic attack.

Patients who have social anxiety may shy away from joining sports teams, taking dance classes, or going to gyms because they worry about being judged or making a fool of themselves. For example, Elsa had enjoyed dance classes and swimming in elementary school but later became socially anxious and self-conscious about wearing a leotard or swimsuit in front of her peers. For this reason, she chose to do biking and jogging which did not require such revealing attire. And now, for the record, Elsa does wear a swimsuit with only mild anxiety when she goes to the beach or the pool with her friends. Did I mention how proud of her I am?

For patients with eating disorders, exercise is altogether a different story. That will be the topic of my next blog post.

Expanding Our Minds: Towards a Biologically-Based Understanding of Eating Disorders

I read the abstract of a recently published journal article which illustrates one of the major problems in the field of mental health treatment in general, and eating disorder treatment in particular. The article, authored by Jim Harris and Ashton Steele and published in the latest issue of Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention is provocatively titled Have We Lost Our Minds? The Siren Song of Reductionism in Eating Disorder Research and Theory.

The authors state that, over the past decade, “the focus of eating disorder research has shifted from the mind to the brain.” I disagree with this assertion on two levels. First, the statement implies that the mind and the brain are separate entities. They are not. The “mind” is simply a range of conscious functions which are carried out by the brain: for example, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, intentions, motivations, and behaviors. These mental functions originate in the brain, are executed in the brain, and are interpreted by the brain.

Indeed, recent developments in genetics and neuroimaging techniques have allowed scientists to study the structure, function, and circuitry of the brain in far greater detail than was possible before. Researchers have utilized this new technology to generate and test novel hypothesis about the biological underpinnings of eating disorders. The results of these studies have indicated that eating disorders are genetically inherited, biologically-based brain disorders, similar to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

However, while research in the area of genetics and neuroimaging has proliferated in the eating disorders field, there has been no shortage of research on psychosocial factors or non-medical treatments for eating disorders, such as FBT and DBT. Contrary to Harris and Steele’s assertion, we have not “lost our minds.” We’ve simply expanded our minds and deepened our realm of investigation to study the biological underpinnings of mental functions as new technology has allowed us to do so.

Harris and Steele assert that the brain disorder model of eating disorders necessitates that treatment targets the underlying neurobiological abnormality; namely, medication. The authors then conclude that the brain disorder model of eating disorders is misguided because no pharmacological intervention has been shown to significantly benefit patients with anorexia nervosa.

This simplistic assumption and its corollary reflect a lack of basic understanding of the relationship between the brain and the symptoms of psychiatric illness. The authors fail to recognize the fact that certain non-medical interventions HAVE been consistently shown to benefit patients with biologically-based brain illnesses.

For example, it is widely accepted amongst medical and psychological professionals, as well as the general public, that autism is a biologically-based brain illness. There are no medications which have shown to consistently benefit children with autism. The gold-standard of treatment for autism is early intervention with applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is a form of behavior therapy focused on skills building, parent training, and modifying environmental contingencies. Most children with autism do extremely well with this type of treatment, and many of them can be mainstreamed in classrooms with typically developing children.

Sound familiar? It should, because that is precisely what is happening in the world of eating disorder treatment. The treatment approaches which have shown the most promise in the world of eating disorders are psychological and behavioral treatments such as Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for anorexia nervosa and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for bulimia nervosa.

There are a number of misconceptions about these types of treatments. For example, many people believe that FBT is merely re-feeding. This is not so. FBT is a psychological and behavioral treatment – a form of psychotherapy – and parental control of re-feeding is but one component of the first phase of this three-phase treatment model.

As another example, some people believe that CBT and DBT are merely “learning skills.” Again, this is a misconception. CBT and DBT are forms of psychotherapy which involve a relationship with a therapist who instills hope, provides support and feedback and accountability, promotes awareness of thoughts and feelings, and teaches adaptive skills for managing life’s challenges.

Contrary to popular belief, psychotherapy does not consist of lying on a couch and talking about your mother. That myth stems from psychoanalysis, an antiquated form of treatment commonly practiced in the mid-20th century which has no evidence base. Modern evidence-based psychotherapy is entirely different: it is active, directive, and believe it or not, effective.

I get a bit irritated when uninformed people make sweeping generalizations on either side of the fence, such as “psychotherapy doesn’t work for eating disorders,” or, on the flip side, “psychotherapy is the best way to treat eating disorders.” The truth is more specific: evidence-based psychotherapies are effective in the treatment of eating disorders.

From my perspective, focusing on the biological basis of psychiatric illnesses does NOT mean:

• That the illness can only be treated with a pill
• That psychological and social factors are irrelevant
• That environment doesn’t matter
• That the patient can’t do anything about it
• That the psychologist’s job is obsolete

Focusing on the biological basis of eating disorders DOES mean:

• That eating disorders are illnesses, no different from cancer or diabetes or schizophrenia
• That patients do not, and in fact cannot, choose to develop eating disorders
• That eating disorders are not caused by family dynamics or social pressures
• That prevention efforts aimed at improving body image are unlikely to be effective
• That a person must have a certain genetic predisposition in order to get an eating disorder
• That biological relatives of eating disorder patients are at risk for developing the disorder themselves
• That medication can be helpful, though not curative, in some cases
• That full nutritional restoration, and thereby correcting the brain-based symptoms of starvation, is a necessary first step in treatment
• That psychotherapy focused on resolving underlying issues or gaining insight into the origins of one’s illness is unlikely to be effective in resolving eating disorder symptoms
• That behaviorally-based psychological treatments focused on symptom management and skills building can be very effective, in large part because they change the brain
• That last century’s theories about the causes of eating disorders are inaccurate

I wish that Harris and Steele, and all professionals involved researching or treating eating disorders, could grasp these points. If the general population had this basic understanding of eating disorders, then patients and their families would be viewed with compassion and understanding rather than judgment or smug clichés (e.g. “she needs to learn to love herself;” “it’s all about control”).

The past decade represents a monumental shift in the way expert clinicians view eating disorders. In fact, it will be 10 years ago this fall that I saw my very first eating disorder patient. As a bright-eyed graduate student hungry for hands-on clinical experience, I chose a training rotation at an adolescent eating disorders clinic. On my first day at the clinic, not much older or wiser than the teenagers I was about to start treating, I was introduced to “the Maudsley Approach,” a promising new treatment method from the UK. And the rest, as they say, was history.

Sleep and Mood Disorders: Implications for Mental Health Care

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone. Well-rested bodies and brains are healthier, more resilient, and more energetic. For those with depression and other mood disorders, getting plenty of sleep must be a priority. In fact, research has demonstrated that people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression than those who get sufficient sleep. Further, new research has shown that sleep disturbances can trigger psychiatric illnesses in those who are vulnerable.

Sleep is every bit as important as medication and therapy in the treatment of mood disorders. For this reason, I make a point of discussing and monitoring sleep patterns with my patients, and I integrate sleep hygiene into their treatment plans.

A recent study financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in The New York Times found that a psychological treatment called CBT-I (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) doubled the effectiveness of antidepressant medication in the treatment of depression.

This was not surprising to me. I was trained in CBT in graduate school and I have seen cognitive-behavioral techniques work wonders in many of my patients. But the implications of this study, and the fact that the results have made it into the popular media, are quite significant.

One of the most disturbing and unfortunate trends in mental health care in recent years has been the overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underuse of behavioral and psychological interventions. This trend is especially bothersome to me because I am keenly aware – thanks to my training and experience as a psychologist – that certain evidence-based psychological treatments are as effective, if not more effective, than medication for treating certain illnesses.

Unfortunately, most people outside the field of psychology don’t know this. Americans are bombarded daily with advertisements for psychotropic medication on television, online, and in print. It’s only natural, then, that consumers who are suffering from depression or anxiety would request medications from their doctors, even when they have a problem that can be successfully treated by other means.

Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means anti-medication. I am thankful that we have effective, relatively safe medications on the market now that can help people effectively manage serious illnesses which were once disabling. Indeed, psychotropic medication can be extremely helpful – even life-saving – for many people. My concern is that psychotropic medications are prescribed too frequently to people who may not need them, often without the necessary monitoring, and often without the corresponding psychological and behavioral interventions that have been proven effective.

As a psychologist who practices said psychological and behavioral interventions, rather than a psychiatrist who prescribes said medications, am I biased? Well, obviously. I believe in what I do and I chose this profession for a reason. But still.

My hope is that, with articles such as this one, the general public will learn that evidence-based psychological treatments exist which can reduce their suffering and improve their quality of life. I would like people to be fully informed about their options when it comes to mental health treatment. I look forward to the day when people experiencing psychiatric symptoms routinely ask their primary care physicians for referrals to psychologists who practice evidence-based treatments, rather than, or in addition to, asking for prescriptions.

Correlates of Treatment Outcome for Patients With Mood Disorders

In my last blog post, I described end-of treatment outcomes for patients with mood disorders. Here, I will elaborate on factors that were correlated with treatment outcome for these patients. Please be advised that these results are specific to my practice and my patients, and should not necessarily be generalized to other clinicians or populations.

Diagnosis
Type of mood disorder diagnosis was strongly correlated with treatment outcome. Patients with Depressive Disorder NOS (DDNOS; n = 3) fared best. Two-thirds of these patients (n = 2) completed treatment and achieved full remission. The remaining one-third (n = 1) attended treatment for two months and made significant progress before quitting prematurely.

Patients with Mood Disorder NOS (MDNOS; n = 4) had varying outcomes. Half of them (n = 2) completed treatment; of these, one achieved full remission and the other made significant progress. Of the remaining MDNOS patients, one quit prematurely after making some progress and the other regressed and was referred to a higher level of care.

Both of the patients in this sample with Dysthymic Disorder also had a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). For statistical purposes, I am subsuming these individuals under the category of MDD, as that is the more severe of the two diagnoses. Patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD; n = 11) had varying outcomes. Eighteen percent (n = 2) completed treatment and achieved full remission; 9% (n = 1) quit treatment after making significant progress; 45% (n = 5) either quit treatment or moved away after making some progress; and 27% (n = 3) were referred to other providers.

The presence of both dysthymic disorder and MDD (n = 2) did not have a consistent impact on treatment outcome – one of these individuals completed treatment and achieved full remission, while the other regressed and was referred to a higher level of care.

None of the patients with bipolar disorder (n = 3) completed treatment or achieved full remission. However, one of the patients with bipolar disorder remained in treatment for over a year and made significant progress, but was eventually referred to another treatment provider to address other treatment needs.

Comorbidity
Presence of a co-morbid diagnosis was a negative prognostic factor. Only 18% (n = 2) of the patients with comorbid disorders completed treatment, and only 9% (n = 1) achieved full remission, while the remaining 9% (n = 1) made significant progress. In contrast, 40% (n = 4) of patients without a comorbid diagnosis completed treatment, and all of these patients achieved full remission.

Medication
Patients who did not take psychiatric medication during treatment with me were more likely to make progress in treatment and more likely to achieve remission than those who took psychiatric medication. All of the patients who did not take medication (n = 8) made at least some progress in treatment. In contrast, 30% of those who took medication either made no progress (n = 2) or regressed (n = 2) during treatment. Half of the patients who did not take medication (n = 4) achieved remission by the end of treatment, compared to 8% (n = 1) of those who took medication.

My hypothesis is that patients who took medication had poorer outcomes not because their medication didn’t work or made them worse, but rather because taking medication is confounded with severity of mood disorder and with comorbidity. In other words, those with more severe mood disorders and/or comorbid conditions were more likely to require medication in order to function, whereas those with mild to moderate mood disorders were less likely to need medication.

Age and Family Involvement
Younger age was a significant predictor of treatment completion. Patients who completed treatment ranged in age from 16 – 29, with an average age of 19.7. Those who did not complete treatment ranged in age from 12 – 59, with an average age of 28.6.

Being under 18 years old was a protective factor. None of the adolescents under 18 quit treatment prematurely. Of the 6 adolescents in this sample, 50% (n = 3) completed treatment and attained full remission, 33% (n = 2) were referred to other treatment settings after a year or more of treatment with me due to other needs, and the remaining 16% (n = 1) engaged in treatment as a 17-year-old and made some progress, but quit shortly after his 18th birthday. I suspect that the high level of parental involvement that I require for adolescent patients is the primary reason why they are likely to remain in treatment and have positive outcomes. In addition, younger patients tend to have shorter duration of illness compared to adult patients, and early intervention is also predictive of positive outcome.

For patients over 18, family involvement often included spouses and significant others instead of parents, based on the patient’s living situation and relationship status. Sixty percent (n = 9) of the patients over 18 in this sample had no family involvement whatsoever, 27% (n = 4) had a low level of family involvement, and 13% (n = 2) had a moderate level of family involvement. None of the patients over 18 had a high level of family involvement.

Importantly, amongst the adults in this sample, family involvement was not necessary in order to make progress in treatment or attain remission. None of the adults who attained full remission (n = 2) had family members involved in their treatment. Likewise, 67% (n = 2) of the adults who made significant progress in treatment had a low level of family involvement and 33% (n = 1) had no family involvement at all.

None of the patients over age 30 (n = 5) completed treatment. I hypothesize that there are several reasons for this: 1.) Older patients had a longer duration of illness, which means that their illness was more entrenched and more difficult to treat; 2.) The majority of these patients (80%; n = 4) had no family support at all; 3.) All of these older patients paid reduced rates for my services, which indicates that they were of lower socio-economic status, and which may suggest that they value my services less than those who pay full price; 4.) I saw all of these patients during my post-doctoral year, when I was less experienced and not yet fully licensed. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the quality of my services was somewhat lower back then than it is now that I am fully licensed and more experienced; and 5.) I prefer working with child and adolescent patients and find that I tend to be more effective with them. For these reasons, particularly #5, I no longer treat adult patients beyond their mid-twenties.

Gender
Average duration of treatment was comparable for males and females (6.8 months vs 7.4 months, respectively). Rates of remission were similar between males and females. Twenty percent (n = 1) of males completed treatment and achieved remission, compared with 25% (n = 4) of females. However, amongst those who did not achieve remission, females were more likely to make significant progress than males. Twenty-five percent (n = 4) of females made significant progress, compared with none of the males.

Hospitalization
Hospitalization during treatment with me predicted regression in treatment. Of the patients who were hospitalized during treatment with me, 67% (n = 2) had regressed by the end of their treatment with me. In contrast, none of the patients who were not hospitalized during treatment had regressed as of their final session with me.

I hypothesize that patients who remained out of the hospital during treatment with me were responding well to treatment, which would explain why they were more likely to achieve remission or at least make significant progress. In contrast, being hospitalized during treatment may have been an indication that the patient was not responding well to treatment, which explains why they were likely regressed as of their last session with me.

Surprisingly, history of hospitalization before entering treatment with me was not related to outcome. Of the 8 patients who had been hospitalized previously, 25% (n = 2) achieved remission, 25% (n = 2) made significant progress, 38% (n = 3) made some progress, and only 12% (n = 1) regressed in treatment with me. These percentages are comparable to those of the 13 patients who had not been hospitalized before beginning treatment with me: 23% (n = 3) achieved remission, 15% (n = 2) made significant progress, 38% (n = 5) made some progress, 15% made no progress, and 8% (n = 1) regressed.

I would have suspected that history of hospitalization would be confounded with illness severity, and therefore would predict poor treatment outcome. However, it is possible that the individuals who had been hospitalized before entering treatment with me had not been given appropriate outpatient treatment, hence the escalation of illness need for hospitalization. Perhaps these patients were able to benefit from their treatment with me, and it is possible that, in some cases, hospitalization could have been avoided if they had received effective outpatient treatment sooner.

Attendance at Therapy Sessions
Attendance at therapy sessions was correlated with treatment retention as well as treatment outcome. Sixty-seven percent (n = 4) of those who completed treatment attended all of their appointments, while the remaining 33% (n = 2) had only one missed appointment. Eighty percent of patients who attained full remission (n = 4) had perfect attendance in therapy; the remaining 20% (n = 1) missed only one appointment. None of the patients who missed more than one appointment completed treatment or achieved full remission.

I suspect this relates to the old adage: “You get out of it what you put into it.” A patient who frequently misses appointments probably places little value on their mental health, which may explain why they tended to drop out of treatment prematurely. Those who were diligent about their treatment prioritized their mental health and worked hard in therapy. Those who were conscientious and responsible about attendance were, most likely, conscientious and responsible about completing therapy homework, taking their medication consistently, and making positive life choices in general. Thus, it is natural that these individuals had better treatment outcomes.

Fee for Services
Payment of full fee for services was a predictor of treatment completion and achieving full remission. Sixty-seven percent of patients (n = 2) who paid my full rate completed treatment, compared with only 22% of patients (n = 4) who paid a reduced rate. Given that so few patients in this sample paid my full rate (n = 3), it is difficult to draw any conclusions about how these individuals differ from those who pay a lower rate.

However, in my practice, the correlation between payment of full services and better treatment outcome has been consistent across diagnoses, regardless of the number of clients in the sample. As I have noted in recent posts, individuals who pay lower fees are, by definition, of lower socio-economic status (SES). These individuals may have more financial stressors than those of higher SES, and may have other life obstacles in general (limited access to healthcare, transportation difficulties, unemployment, single parent families) which interfered with their ability to progress in treatment.

In addition, those who pay reduced rates were much more likely than those who pay full rate to no-show for sessions or to cancel at the last minute. This finding suggests to me that, on average, individuals who paid reduced fees placed less personal value on their sessions, had less respect for my time, did not prioritize their recovery, and/or were generally irresponsible, compared with individuals who paid full rate.

Brain-Based Language and Eating Disorders (by guest blogger Carrie Arnold)

The following is a guest blog post from Carrie Arnold, science writer and blogger, who attended the International Conference on Eating Disorders with me earlier this month.

Language is a funny thing.

I’m a writer–every day, I see (and use!) the power of words to explain very esoteric subjects, to comfort a friend, and even to entertain. The language we use to talk about eating disorders is also important. It was refreshing to have a psychotherapist describe me not as “an anorexic,” but as “someone with anorexia.” Anorexia was a diagnosis. It wasn’t me.

The issue of language in eating disorders goes far deeper than whether or not to use anorexic or bulimic to describe someone. It cuts right to the heart of how we understand eating disorders and how we treat them. One of the sessions at the 2012 International Conference on Eating Disorders in Austin, Texas discussed the use of brain language in regards to eating disorders. Laura Collins, founder and executive director of FEAST, spoke about how the biological language can be empowering to parents and sufferers. Brett Deacon, a psychologist from the University of Wyoming, spoke of the power of the biopsychosocial model of mental illness, and the potential dangers of biological language. Anne Becker, an anthropologist and ED expert from Harvard University, talked about how language affects our perception of EDs. Lastly, Kelly Klump, a behavioral geneticist from Michigan State University, asked the crucial question: is it time for new language or new data?

First, a mini-history lesson. As neuroimaging techniques and other brain science has advanced in recent years, scientists studying mental illness have begun to use these tools to explore the biology of mental illness. Without these tools, researchers could only look at the psychosocial factors that contributed to mental illness, and they accumulated a mass of very important data on the subject. But neuroimaging and other techniques have allowed scientists to probe biological variations that might contribute to mental illness. Leading psychiatrists and psychologists like Tom Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health, have argued that these significant biological differences mean that “mental illness” should be renamed “brain disease.”

To some, a brain disease by any other name surely doesn’t smell as sweet. To me, the use of “brain disease” or, an alternative, “biologically-based mental illness” seems obvious. Depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders affect the brain. That’s where they start. Deny that, and you may as well call them Big Toe Disorders or something equally ludicrous. If they’re not brain disorders, then what are they? I’m not asking a rhetorical question-I really would like an answer.

One potential answer that Dr. Deacon suggested was the biopsychosocial model. Mental illnesses are really biopsychosocial illnesses. Which is accurate. My problem with that term is that every disease, from eating disorders to cancer to diabetes, has biological, psychological, and social components. It’s like taking cows, sheep, goats, horses, dogs, and cats and putting them in a barn and trying to tell them apart by figuring out which have four legs.

I don’t know of anyone out there who can support the assertion that EDs are only biological. Genes matter, yes, but so does environment. Laura presented statements from families around the world that biological language like “brain disorder” gave them a way to move forward. Looking for blame didn’t really matter anymore. They could reframe their loved one’s behavior: instead of being a willful teen refusing to eat, they had a sick adolescent who wasn’t able to eat.

One of the main concerns with the biological language is the potential for stigma. If your genes caused your illness, then you’re screwed. After all, your genes are your genes, and they’re not changing unless you stand in front of some gamma rays. Which I wouldn’t recommend. Basically, then, it’s easy to see how biology would support the view of “Once an anorexic/bulimic, always an anorexic/bulimic.” Recovery was a hopeless endeavor.

While it’s true that you’re stuck with the genes you’re born with, your biology isn’t written in stone. To paraphrase biologist PZ Myers, biology isn’t rigid. It’s a bunch of squishy processes making do. Your genes don’t change, but their expression does. It’s a process known as epigenetics, whereby genes are regularly activated and silenced by various environmental factors. It’s entirely possible that the negative energy balance (that is, burning more calories than you’re consuming) that typically precedes anorexia activates genes that perpetuate the food restriction. It’s also entirely possible that nutritional rehabilitation silences these genes or activates other ones that help the brain and body return to normal.

The problem, then, isn’t with the biological language per se, but rather our culture’s generally abysmal level of scientific literacy. These concepts are difficult for even PhD scientists to understand. But as society’s awareness of the biological contributions to brain diseases/ mental illness grows, perhaps the understanding of the complex biology will improve as well. In fact, a study by Cindy Bulik and colleagues at UNC found that biological language actually decreased the stigma of anorexia, rather than increasing it.

Saying things like “brain disease” also doesn’t mean that the only solution is a pill. Although I do benefit from medication, I’m hardly a shill for Big Pharma. Psychotherapy remains one of the best ways to reliably change the brain long-term. Researchers found significant brain changes when a group of people with spider phobia underwent a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy. The authors conclude that “These findings suggest that a psychotherapeutic approach, such as CBT, has the potential to modify the dysfunctional neural circuitry associated with anxiety disorders. They further indicate that the changes made at the mind level, within a psychotherapeutic context, are able to functionally “rewire” the brain.”

At some point, however, all of this “language talk” makes me want to throw up my hands in frustration. Aren’t we just wasting loads of time playing at semantics? Call it Rainbows and Kittens for all I care!

Except that language really does matter. A recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people were significantly more likely to believe that someone needed treatment when they were diagnosed with social anxiety disorder versus social phobia. In the state of New Jersey, it was legal for health insurers to deny paying for anorexia treatment because it wasn’t a biologically based mental illness. A recent class action law suit caused this provision to be overturned and anorexia and bulimia treated on par with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Language matters, and it matters a lot.

The talk at ICED didn’t necessarily settle the matter, but then it wasn’t meant to. The most important thing was how it provided a better understanding of what we all mean when we say things like brain disease or biopsychosocial. What I mean when I say brain disease isn’t necessarily what other people mean. I know that talking about the biology of eating disorders doesn’t mean that environment is irrelevant as is psychotherapy. But that’s not necessarily what other people think. Perhaps what the field needs to do is clarify what their terms mean and how they use them in a sentence. Only then can we start to have a meaningful dialogue that will move the field forward.