How to Navigate a Diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa; Know Your Treatment Options

With the ability to spot the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa disorder, family members can help their loved ones acquire the treatment they need to become recovered. Anorexia nervosa is an incredibly dangerous disorder that can lead to serious health consequences and even death if left untreated. Early intervention is the key to protecting the health and wellbeing of at-risk people, so it is essential to know the telltale signs of anorexia nervosa and act quickly when they are observed.

Although every case has its own wrinkles, there are certain definable symptoms of anorexia nervosa. This means a close look at the standard list of symptoms can assist family members in seeing when their loved ones may need help. Here we can get started on the essentials in identifying anorexia nervosa, and steps to take if a diagnosis is made.

What Are the Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa?

People with eating disorders have repeated, distinctive behaviors and resulting symptoms, although many do try to obscure or hide their symptoms. Through mindful observation, loved ones can notice the subtle signs of an eating disorder. 

Individuals with anorexia nervosa normally refuse to eat or eat only small amounts, to reduce caloric intake. This is driven by the perception that they are fat or overweight even when they are seriously underweight. They may also exercise compulsively to burn off any calories they do consume. These behaviors are extremely difficult to hide when living with others. Aside from dramatic weight loss, secretive behavior around food and exercise are the most noticeable symptoms of anorexia nervosa.

Other common signs families can look for include:

  • Sudden weight changes
  • New eating habits, including spitting out food
  • Fatigue
  • Small hairs growing on the body (lanugo) 
  • Tooth loss
  • Constant coldness
  • Stomach cramps
  • Headaches
  • Poor concentration
  • Anxiety about food and mealtime

If these signs appear alongside restrictive eating behaviors (that is avoiding meals entirely or only eating small amounts), or an obsessive need to exercise, it’s time to search out a reputable eating disorder treatment facility. In some cases, it may be too difficult for family members to tell if their loved one has an eating disorder. In such a situation, it’s always best to get a medical opinion from your doctor.

Later Signs of a Serious Case of Anorexia Nervosa

During regular checkups,doctors can watch for the symptoms of anorexia nervosa to determine if an individual needs more specialized treatment for an eating disorder. These symptoms are detectable using medical expertise and diagnostic tests, including blood tests. These simple tests can catch and identify advances symptoms of malnutrition resulting from anorexia nervosa, such as thyroid imbalances, anemia, or low potassium.  

Other symptoms of more advanced anorexia nervosa include:

  • Slow heart rate
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Low BMI
  • Excessive growth of fine hair on the face and body
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Poor kidney function
  • Anemia
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Muscle loss
  • Brittle bones

An initial diagnosis by a family physician can get the ball rolling on a more complete course of treatment and can help confirm loved ones’ suspicions or allay them.

What Does“Eating Disorder Recovery” Really Mean?

Of course, it means getting better. But for the majority of concerned loved ones, it’s hard to define what steps are taken to achieve that goal. Recovery is best assisted by the programs at a dedicated eating disorder treatment facility. Eating disorder treatment centers have many types and levels of care that allows them to personalize their treatment strategies, in which the specifics of the person’s medical and emotional needs are targeting with a personalized care program. 

Generally, after any medical necessities are tended to, clients at a treatment center will focus on body acceptance, proper nutrition, mindful exercise, and personal growth.

With clients’ range of experiences with eating disorders varying so widely, eating disorder therapists must assist in finding the right level of care through each stage of treatment. Many treatment centers offer residential programs and day treatment options added to family and aftercare support services.

Residential Treatment Program Admission After Anorexia Nervosa Diagnosis

In residential eating disorder treatment programs, a skilled team of professionals is available to provide 24/7 support while the client focuses entirely on recovery. These experts provide medical and psychiatric care, create and maintain the treatment program, and work with the client on a daily basis. Depending on the treatment program’s design, clients meet with nutritionists, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists regularly.

At these immersive residential facilities, the recovery journey follows a level system that allows clients to mark their progress toward becoming fully recovered. In addition to medical recovery, psychological assessments, and emotional growth, these levels help to gain a sense of achievement about their recovery. As clients make progress in recovery, therapists assess their readiness to move onto more difficult challenges. They can begin to build skillsets like coping techniques for stressful mealtimes and grocery shopping, or meditation techniques to mindfully quell cravings.

Daily group therapy is normally a major crux of the residential eating disorder treatment process, althoughthe client’s unique needs will determine the best therapy model for comprehensive recovery. Therapy models frequently included in anorexia nervosa treatment include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Body image therapy
  • Expressive art sessions
  • Interpersonal process
  • Dialectical behavioral skills training

As therapy progresses, clients come to understand their body in a more objective light, gaining an appreciation for the necessity of proper nutrition and accepting their natural body shape and size.

The Roles of Day Treatment or Outpatient Services

As a standalone treatment, or more often as a stepdown in levels of care following graduation from a residential program, the recovering individual can start to make the transition to a day treatment program. There are usually several day treatment program options with a specialized focus to ensure they are fully personalizing care to each client’s needs. Some clients may benefit from intensive outpatient treatment, while others require a bit more support, as is found in partial hospitalization programs – the latter is also a great option to residential programs.

The skills learned in residential treatment can be put into practice in real-life situations with the assistance of a day treatment program, making it an ideal follow-up to the more intensive inpatient program. The skill-building activities continue to increase in difficulty to prepare clients to cope with a wide range of potentially triggering situations.

The relatively short sessions, while less intense, allow clients to integrate their newfound recovery into daily life without sacrificing support from professionally. 

Supervised Living for More Serious Cases

Halfway between a residential program, which can be more medically-focused, and a day treatment program, in which the individual lives at home and attends sessions. In supervised living programs, clients receive support in planning and eating healthy meals as well as help in navigating stressors. Eating disorder therapists in a supervised living situation help clients address their symptoms of anorexia nervosa and gain self-acceptance.

As they work toward graduation from the anorexia nervosa treatment centers, clients can learn to be more comfortable with planning balanced meals and setting up reasonable exercise programs. All along the path to recovery, eating disorder therapists help clients remain accountable for their own journey toward becoming recovered.

Following a supervised living or a day treatment program, the next step (which any quality eating disorder treatment center will provide) is aftercare. It might be the most important aspect of a complete recovery.

The Importance of Aftercare Upon Graduating from Eating Disorder Treatment

When facing the prospect of their client returning to unsupervised life after an anorexia nervosa diagnosis and treatment program completion, eating disorder treatment specialists use their expertise to implement a plan of self-supporting care for their clients. Clients might receive referrals to care providers outside the treatment center who can help them maintain their recovery. They may also receive information about therapy groups, educational opportunities and other resources in their area.

Oliver-Pyatt Centers offer alumnae services that help their clients remain connected to their care team and peers. A strong family connection is also key to the aftercare plan, based on family support lessons provided during residential or day treatment. These resources may include webinars, blog posts and newsletter content that provides education on helpful topics, including meal planning and mindfulness. Ongoing therapy can be arranged in many cases, and local referrals for therapists and doctors are a given.

How to Get a Head Start on a Full Recovery

When the symptoms of anorexia nervosa have become clear to those closest to the client, or they’ve received a diagnosis of the disorder from a doctor, it’s time to begin seeking out professional care. With careful, non-judgmental discussions with or without the help of a professional interventionist, family members can start to motivate their loved one to admit there is an issue at hand and accept help for their disorder. The experienced admissions staff at Oliver-Pyatt’s eating disorder treatment center can also help people with an anorexia nervosa diagnosis and their family understand the benefits of acquiring treatment.

When the admittedly difficult conversation has taken place, it’s time to reach out for help.It’s often possible to arrange a preliminary analysis and begin the admissions process with a single phone call. Admissions specialists complete a full intake assessment to find the best type of care for the client.  They’ll also help you navigate the world of insurance, helping you find the best way to secure the treatment you or your loved one needs.

The care team then collaborates to create an effective plan for the treatment of anorexia nervosa and any co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse or depression. Upon admitting to the facility, the client will have secured a comprehensive plan and the staff to carry it out. Treatment centers continue to care for their clients after graduation by offering access to resources that support their goals of remaining recovered for life.