One of the hallmark symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is anosognosia, or a brain-based inability to recognize that one is sick. For this reason, most patients have little or no insight when they first present for treatment. Even months into effective treatment, most patients with AN continue to demonstrate anosognosia from time to time, if not consistently. The irony here is that most patients with AN do not believe they are sick until after they have gotten well.
I am outspoken in my belief that insight is unnecessary, not to mention unlikely, in early recovery from Anorexia Nervosa (AN). I do not expect my patients to have any insight whatsoever early on in their treatment with me. I expect kids with AN to present in my office denying that they have a problem. Their lack of insight does not delay or undermine treatment one bit.
In Family-Based Treatment (FBT), the patient is not required to demonstrate any insight at all during Phase I (Re-feeding and weight restoration). Phase II (returning control of eating to the adolescent) and even Phase III (establishing a healthy adolescent identity) can be successfully completed with a relatively small amount of insight on the patient’s part.
The re-feeding and weight-restoration components of treatment can be achieved without the patient’s consent or compliance. Through FBT and similar family-centered approaches, parents can feed their children complete, balanced nutrition and ensure that they maintain a healthy weight for as long as necessary. In theory, a patient could exist in an externally-maintained state of physical health forever, which would be far better than suffering the long-term medical and psychological consequences of AN. But this is not recovery.
Children and younger teens tend to lack the maturity to develop good insight even after their AN has been in remission for quite some time. Lack of insight is completely normal at this stage of development, even for kids who have never had a brain disorder. It is not necessarily problematic for recovering adolescents to lack insight as long as they are living safely under their parents’ roof.
For older adolescents and young adults, however, there comes a point later in recovery, after physical health is restored and most mental symptoms have subsided, when a patient does need to develop some insight about their illness and “own their recovery.” Patients do not need insight to get well, but they certainly do need insight in order to live a healthy, fulfilling, independent life.
As a side note here, the type of insight I am referring to here has nothing to do with “discovering the root cause” or “learning to love yourself” or “finding your voice” or any of the other talking points commonly referenced in ED recovery circles. The important insights to gain, in my opinion, are the following:
1.) Acknowledging and accepting that you have (or had) an eating disorder, which is a biologically-based brain illness that you did not choose to have and your parents did not cause
2.) Acknowledging and accepting the possibility of relapse
3.) Ability to recognize eating disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in yourself
4.) Understanding the necessity of maintaining full nutrition, every day, for life
5.) Accepting the necessity of maintaining your ideal body weight in order to reduce the risk of relapse
How do you help a person who is recovering from AN to develop insight? It’s tricky, and it varies considerably based upon the patient’s own unique experience of having AN. Unlike full nutrition and weight restoration, insight cannot be thrust upon someone against their will. The patient must be an active participant in the process.
I find it helpful, as a therapist, to have frank conversations with patients and their parents about the biological basis of AN, potential triggers, vulnerability to relapse, and the importance of practicing good self-care. A single conversation at the start of treatment is rarely sufficient. Instead, I integrate these conversations into most of our sessions to help the patient absorb and internalize this information. For the first few months of treatment, these discussions are primarily for the benefit of the parents, as most kids are too malnourished and shut-down to process this information. However, after weight restoration and brain healing, these discussions can have a powerful impact on recovering kids.
Parents often have these insight-building conversations with their recovering teens at home. Often, teens will get defensive, shut down, or lash out when parents bring up these topics. But sometimes kids actually listen!
Many weight-restored patients go through a phase of romanticizing their AN, longing to return to the days of extreme thinness, perpetual motion, and hyper-focus on academics and athletics. While these feelings are understandable and typical at a certain stage of recovery, they need to be counterbalanced with conversations about the negative impact AN had on their bodies, their minds, and their lives. Otherwise, it is all too easy for recovering people to view AN through “rose-colored glasses.”
Bear in mind that the development of insight can take years. Recovered teens who initially presented for treatment at age 13-14 (the typical age of onset) will often show a blossoming of insight around age 17-18, just as they are preparing to leave home for college. This newfound insight is often the result of a variety of factors, including consistent full nutrition, brain healing, normal adolescent developmental processes, maturity, frontal lobe development, and successful therapy. I have worked with many adolescents for whom this happens beautifully, organically, and right on time. These kids go off to college in other states and thrive.
In other cases, however, the timing may be far less convenient. Those who develop AN at 16 or 17 years of age may not be sufficiently recovered to develop the insight needed to manage their illness independently at that magical age of 18. Similarly, who relapse during their junior or senior year of high school may have a setback in the process of insight development and thus may not be ready for independence right after high school.
In some cases, kids are diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence but don’t receive effective treatment until late adolescence. In these cases, it may take even longer for insight to develop if the illness has become entrenched and emotional maturity lags far behind chronological age.
Further, teens who have suffered through months or years of ineffective treatment may have built up an arsenal of bogus myth-based insight that has nothing to do with the reality of their illness. For example:
• “I developed AN as a way to cope with feeling out of control in life.”
• “I have to want to get better on my own. I have to do this for myself.”
• “Re-feeding doesn’t help us discover the root cause of your illness.”
• “I am enmeshed with my parents and this is keeping me sick. I need to become more independent.”
These myth-based “insights” very often result in parental alienation and protracted illness.
As you can see, all insight is not equal. The insights worth having are those that are based in empirical science, those that empower parents to help their offspring recover, and those that serve to help patients achieve and maintain their physical and mental health while living a full and meaningful life.