From Diagnosis to Aftercare: How Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Works

Receiving an anorexia nervosa diagnosis can be the beginning of a very long and challenging process. It requires a professional to diagnose anorexia nervosa, and treatment involves much more than a few therapy sessions. Eating disorders don’t develop all at once, and correspondingly the anorexia nervosa recovery process takes careful planning. Diagnosis, the planning of an appropriate treatment plan, actual treatment, and securing the right aftercare steps with a good support system surrounding the individual in treatment are all necessary.

Anorexia nervosa treatment may be complex; but that doesn’t mean it should be mysterious. In recent years, best practices for recovery have been largely laid out and agreed upon by experts. These practices lay out the basics of a treatment plan for those who are new to treatment. Demystifying treatment is the first step to recovery.

An anorexia nervosa diagnosis means that a serious and sometimes dangerous mental health condition has come into play; however, people with the disorder can enjoy long-term recovery. It’s more than great residential or day treatment programs. What to do after recovery is just as important. For those interested in finding a comprehensive anorexia nervosa treatment center, it’s important to consider what kinds of different aftercare programs have been put in place before making any final decisions. Here, we’ll go over the main points of anorexia nervosa treatment, from diagnosis to aftercare.

Diagnosing Anorexia Nervosa

What Are the Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa, among the more severe mental health diseases affecting young women and men, is a potentially life-threatening psychiatric disorder that is characterized by restriction of caloric intake, extreme weight loss, and an inability to maintain a healthy weight and nutritional balance. Another common symptom of anorexia nervosa is body dysmorphia or a distorted body image. People who’ve received a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa generally make great efforts to restrict the number of calories or the types of food they eat. They may also engage in excessive or compulsive exercise, to the point of injuring themselves. This serious mental health disorder can affect people of all ages, genders, races, and social backgrounds. However, it affects young women (from age 16 onwards, although there are examples of cases much earlier) disproportionately.

Per the DSM-V, here are the diagnostic criteria of anorexia nervosa:

  1. Restriction of energy intake relative to requirements, leading to a significantly low body weight In the context of the age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health (less than minimally normal/expected).
  2. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat or persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain.
  3. Disturbed by one’s body weight or shape, self-worth influenced by body weight or shape, or persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of low body weight.
  4. Specified types:
    1. Restricting type: During the past 3 months has not regularly engaged in binge eating or purging
    2. Binge-eating/purging type: During the past 3 months, has regularly engaged in binge-eating or purging.

Although almost any mental health professional and most doctors can diagnose anorexia nervosa initially, they will normally refer to a psychiatrist to confirm. They can also help their client take the first steps toward contacting an eating disorder treatment center and beginning the admissions process.

What Are the Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa?

Before making a diagnosis, mental health professionals are aware of the warning signs of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Family members and friends can also help their loved one by learning more about the disorder as well. While each person is different, some of the most common warning signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Refusal to eat or going on diets despite being underweight
  • Avoiding public meals or finding excuses not to eat
  • An obsession or compulsive behaviors about food, dieting, exercise, counting calories, etc.
  • Cooking meals for others without eating
  • The inability to maintain a body weight that is appropriate for one’s age, height, and general build
  • Changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle
  • Muscle weakness and dizziness
  • Consistently finding reasons to skip mealtime or social situations that involve food
  • Co-occurring risk factors such as depression or anxiety disorders, especially PTSD

Early Intervention and the Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Process

Early intervention for someone with an anorexia nervosa diagnosis could mean the difference between a prolonged battle with the disorder and a relatively quick and complete recovery. Anorexia nervosa hasthe highest mortality rate out of any known mental health condition. If it is ignored or goes untreated, it can lead to a number of both physical and psychological health risks. For this reason, early intervention is the key to effective treatment whenever possible.

It’s vital for families trying to help their loved ones to reach out to medical and psychiatric professionals when they suspect anorexia nervosa or another serious eating disorder is developing. As families choose the right anorexia nervosa recovery center for their loved ones, it’s important to look for a program that offers medical and psychological care to help ensure the best possible outcome.

Treatment Protocols for Anorexia Nervosa

Eating disorder treatment can be in several levels of care. Residential care, where an individual lives at the treatment facility for a set period of time, is recommended for severe cases and/or those that require medical supervision. In the day treatment level of care, there are Intensive Outpatient (IOP) and Partial Hospitalization (PHP) levels of care; these ask the individual to visit the treatment center regularly, returning home in between sessions. There are also virtual options for day treatment, although any care plan requiring medical treatment will need some form of in-person meetings.

At each level of care, there are three major components of the treatment plan. They work in sync with each other; if any aspect of treatment is ignored, outcomes will become less positive in general. These pillars of treatment include:

  1. Medical –Many individuals with anorexia nervosa are suffering from medical complications at first. These can result from malnutrition and may influence heart and other organ functions, lessening of bone density, anemia, and a variety of other health risks. Eating disorder treatment centers prioritize medical stabilization to ensure the health of the client. Residential programs will have 24/7 medical care including nurses and doctors on staff.
  2. Nutritional –Imbalances and deficiencies in nutrition are widespread among people with anorexia nervosa. Not only does lack of nutrition wreak havoc on the body’s functions, but it also affects the brain, affecting mood and decision-making. To counteract these issues, eating disorder treatment centers carefully plan meals for their clients, balancing nutritional needs with quality ingredients and preparation to help their clients recover the joy of eating intuitively. For many clients with anorexia nervosa, a weight-restring plan is recommended. Each level of care should include frequent sessions with dieticians and nutritionists, who can [provide guidance and education about how to restore proper nutrition and educate about its importance.
  3. Therapeutic –therapy is the cornerstone of anorexia nervosa treatment. It is used in every level of care and can include various methodologies. In addition to traditional talk therapy as you’d expect from a therapist, there are several behavioral treatment options available. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). These methods are each a variation on similar ideas; each strives to help the client understand how their thinking is distorted, accept their thoughts and emotions without acting on them, and increase mindfulness of how their emotions drive behaviors. The latter option, CPT, is specially designed to help people process trauma and understand how it affects thinking. Group therapy is also common, and helps clients bond with peers and share their experiences. Exposure therapy is also a powerful therapeutic tool. It helps gradually reacclimate to regular and intuitive eating practices.

Anorexia Nervosa Aftercare: What Do Families Need to Know?

Recovery doesn’t stop when the individual leaves the treatment center. It must be continued via an aftercare program to ensure the best outcomes. Before an individual discharges from an anorexia nervosa recovery center, they should have a complete aftercare plan set in place. Heading home and back into a routine without a solid aftercare plan could set the individual up for a relapse. Most mental health disorders can be triggered by stress or other difficult situations. Because of the health risk and the high chance of stress-related relapse, step-down programs are often recommended for people leaving residential treatment.

Committing to working through an aftercare plan is the best way to slowly transition back into day-to-day life after being discharged from treatment. Patients have the option for continued eating disorder counseling through day treatment services, group counseling sessions, family-based therapy, and more. There are also many support groups and online communities available, which further the bonds made during treatment and allow a strong support network. Aside from these resources, the individual’s family and close friends are paramount. To that end, many treatment centers offer family counseling and education programs that will help the loved ones learn how to provide support (and how to process their own emotions during this process).

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.