By Wesley Gallagher
Eating disorders are complicated and multifaceted illnesses, which means treating them must be multifaceted. Perhaps the most complicated aspect of an eating disorder is that food is at the center of the issue, and food is something we need to live.
When dealing with addiction to drugs or alcohol, the main goal is pretty straightforward: to stop taking drugs or drinking alcohol. Obviously, there is much more to addiction than substance use, but if the presenting problem is a substance, abstinence from that substance is a good indicator of success in treatment.
Eating disorders are another story. We can’t, and shouldn’t, abstain from food. In fact, the goal of eating disorder treatment is to transform the role of food from enemy to friend. This is where something called exposure therapy can be beneficial.
What is Exposure Therapy?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), exposure therapy is a form of psychological treatment that helps you overcome fears by exposing you to them in a safe and controlled environment. Over time, those fears are reduced as you relearn how to interact with the object or situation you are afraid of.
The transformation can happen in a variety of ways, including the following:
- Habituation – the gradual reduction of negative reactions to feared objects or situations
- Extinction – the weakening of learned associations between feared objects or situations and bad outcomes
- Self-efficacy – the realization that you are capable of confronting your fears and managing the feelings of anxiety that come with them
- Emotional processing – the ability to attach new, more realistic beliefs about feared objects or situations, and to process the feelings that come up in those situations
Benefits of Exposure Therapy for Eating Disorders
If you have an eating disorder, you’ve most likely developed some type of fear or negative feelings surrounding food. Whether you are afraid to eat it because you don’t want to gain weight, or you fear you’ll eat too much of it, food is seen as the enemy.
Exposure therapy for eating disorders works to change those associations you have with food by allowing you to encounter food in positive ways in a controlled environment. As you continue to interact with food, over time you are able to face the fears and anxieties you have about food and teach your brain to have more positive, healthier associations with food.
Exposure Therapy in Eating Disorder Treatment
At The Meadows Ranch, we are intentional about the way food is integrated into eating disorder treatment. By exposing our program participants to food in various ways on a daily basis, exposure therapy is woven into the very fabric of their lives.
In addition to individual therapy surrounding food, time is also spent in the kitchen preparing meals, cooking food, or cleaning up every day. Nutrition education groups incorporate time in the kitchen as well, creating positive experiences around food and offering hands-on cooking lessons.
Through these experiences, participants gradually learn to view food in a more positive light. Many women come into treatment viewing food as the enemy, and as they start to take ownership over their experiences with food and encounter it regularly in a controlled environment, the food gradually loses its power.
“When [women] come in,” says Executive Director Erica Trocino, “they are going into the kitchen right away and learning how to properly prepare food … being able to plate it, eat it, handle their emotions, engage in conversations during the meal, or having fun again during meals.”
Realizing that food is not the enemy — but rather, the negative thoughts and fears surrounding food are — is key. And those thoughts and fears can be transformed and healed. As women spend time in the kitchen, prepare meals, and sit down to eat with others every day, Trocino says they are slowly learning how to manage the emotions that surface when they encounter food. And over time, those emotions start to diminish as they gain control over food.
Another benefit of spending time in the kitchen is that participants gain the skills they need to take charge of their nutrition when they leave. As they learn to prepare healthy, nutritious food for themselves, they gain the confidence they need to continue with those healthy eating habits once they return home. “If they feel empowered, then they know what to do,” says Trocino.
This unique approach to exposure therapy is just one aspect of a whole-person treatment that takes an in-depth look at the underlying issues and trauma that lead to eating disorders. Eating disorders are about food, but on a deeper level they are about much more, and our goal at The Meadows Ranch is to address those deeper issues to achieve lasting recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact us today to get started on the path toward healing.