How Eating Disorder Treatment Centers Can Nurture a Feeling of Safety in Recovery

The world can be a difficult place for young adults, something that anyone who remembers their post-adolescence can appreciate. Even in loving families, young adults can struggle to find a sense of belonging and acceptance, as well as a sense of self-confidence and value. When those young adults are also dealing with an eating disorder, it only makes finding a sense of safety that much more difficult. For someone to heal from an eating disorder, they need to feel safe.

The need for safety in the healing process is well-understood among practitioners of evidence-based treatment for eating disorders – which is why quality eating disorder treatment programs put a high priority on providing safe spaces for those they are trying to treat, particularly when navigating their entry to adulthood.

The Necessity for Eating Disorder Treatment

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States alone. Eating disorders are the most fatal of any mental illness, causing more deaths than any other. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and others are very real problems for more people than many realize – and many of those struggling with these disorders are in their late teens and early adulthood.

Some people with an eating disorder diagnosis can spend years, decades, and even a lifetime with the illness. Others may have more severe symptoms and suffer serious health complications, even fatal complications. Whether it is a lifetime of difficulties or early death, the repercussions of eating disorders for young adults can be tragic – which is why it is so important for young adults diagnosed with eating disorders to get appropriate treatment. Not only can the right treatment lessen the symptoms of the disorder, but it can also actually lead to a fully recovered life. Everyone with an eating disorder deserves such a chance.

Creating Safe Spaces for Young Adults with Eating Disorders

When treating eating disorders, it is of paramount importance to make treatment accessible and ideally, appealing to clients. If they do not feel like treatment is something that makes sense for them, something that can help them, they are much less likely to engage in that treatment. Every eating disorder therapist knows that treatment works only if the client is engaged in the process. Engagement is only made possible when safety – physical, emotional, and mental – is apparent to the client. Treatment centers that cater to young adult clients strive to create safe spaces that encourage engagement among clients in a variety of ways, including:

An Environment of Their Peers

One of the first things that eating disorder treatment professionals realized when developing treatment programs was that clients would be more at ease in an environment of their peers. While all types of people can be diagnosed with eating disorders, in the treatment setting it is beneficial to separate clients so that they are in groups that they feel most comfortable in. People in a variety of mental health facilities can all benefit from treatment programs where they are surrounded by their peers. Instead of placing everyone in a group together (although this may happen occasionally), treatment centers create programs specifically for different groups so that each group can get the most out of the treatment process – which all starts with feeling comfortable enough to let their guard down and trust that the treatment center professionals are there to help.

Therapies Catered to Different Groups

Most people who have not visited a therapist see therapy as something like what is portrayed in movies and television. The client enters the room and lies on a couch while the therapist writes in a notebook as the client talks about their past. While there are certainly therapy sessions that might mimic this – like psychoanalysis – the reality is that therapy is much more varied. Therapists come from all walks of life and practice a wide range of therapies. And when it comes to treating young adults, the process is often much less clinical and reserved than most portrayals on the screen.

The goal of treatment centers is for clients to be as engaged as possible in therapy. If clients are more comfortable talking with a female therapist, such as in a treatment program for young women, then the clients are given access to female therapists. Therapy is tailored to the needs of the individuals in the treatment programs so that those individuals have every opportunity to get the most out of their treatment.

Surrounded by Peers and Professionals

Treatment programs are designed so that the people that the clients interact with within their treatment programs are people that will make them feel safe and comfortable. This careful group design is particularly important when the treatment program is a residential one. Since clients must live in the treatment center in a residential program, they need to be sure that they will be comfortable with all the people they are surrounded by. That is why adolescent programs only allow adolescent clients in the program, for example, or female-only programs are made available. The clients will interact with only other young adults and treatment staff while they are in the program. They won’t have to worry about interacting with adults that are not part of the treatment staff – which creates a sense of safety for the clients. This is especially important for clients who have traumatic experiences and need to be with a peer group to feel safe.

Therapy – A Safe Space to Share

An eating disorder therapist that works at an eating disorder treatment center is trained to help clients become fully recovered – something that requires a flexible approach to therapy. Many different types of therapy can be used to treat eating disorders, but that does not mean every type of therapy will work for every client. Even the same type of therapy can have different results depending on the therapist that is practicing the therapy. This makes it possible for a client to fail to get results using a single type of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and still go on to get great results with the same type of therapy when seeing another therapist.

There are multiple variables at play in therapy, which is why therapists tend to tell their clients that it is all right to request another therapist if they do not feel comfortable with their current therapist. In the end, the best results from therapy come from a client and therapist that can connect, which means the client needs to have options.

It can be helpful for eating disorder clients to recognize that therapists are there to help them achieve the outcomes they want most – so much so that they are willing to step aside and let another therapist take over if that is what it takes to help the client. It may take several therapists, as well as several different types of therapy, to achieve the best outcomes for the client. That is why eating disorder therapists must create a safe space for clients to express themselves, including their most traumatizing thoughts and emotions. When the client goes into the therapy session, they need to know that they can say how they really feel. The safe space allows for honesty on the part of the client, which is the foundation for achieving desirable outcomes in a therapy session.

Young and vulnerable client groups are particularly sensitive to environments that are not conducive to safety and honesty. They have learned over time to protect themselves when they perceive that they are not safe to express themselves. There are many different paths that these clients take to get to the point where they are in an eating disorder treatment center – eating disorders affect all types of people from all walks of life, from children to the elderly, from those struggling with poverty to those in the highest echelons of society. But what they all share is a group of symptoms related to eating, symptoms that occur in reaction to undesirable stimuli. For them to recognize that they do not have to react to those stimuli with disordered eating behaviors, they need to be in an environment that is non-threatening and makes them feel relatively safe.

Offering a Variety of Therapies to Fit the Unique Needs of Clients

One of the great benefits of therapy for eating disorder clients is the feeling of being heard and accepted. Young adults with eating disorders tend to feel that they are not being seen and valued as they truly are. A benefit that eating disorder therapists can offer such clients is their honest and compassionate assessment of the client. The therapist is trained to listen, to pay attention, and to give validation to the individual seeking treatment.

As part of the process of seeing and accepting the client, the therapist and eating disorder treatment center staff can offer different types of treatment based on what the client thinks they need and what the professional staff considers most appropriate for the unique circumstances of the client. These treatments can include:

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

There are many individuals diagnosed with eating disorders that have difficulties with the relationships in their lives. It may be parents, other family members, friends, or even acquaintances, that leave the client feeling frustrated, hurt, unaccepted, misunderstood, or other unpleasant feelings that lead to negative feelings. Those negative feelings may trigger eating disorder symptoms, which is why IPT attempts to help clients better navigate their relationships. Whether it is setting firm boundaries, seeing the other person with more compassion, or some other type of adjustment, IPT can help the client deal with interpersonal relationships from a position of confidence and self-control.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is designed to help clients understand the series of steps that lead to their eating disorder symptoms – starting with negative thoughts, which trigger negative feelings, which lead to undesirable behaviors. CBT helps clients examine their thoughts to identify where they leave observable reality and start to exaggerate the client’s faults. By noticing the way they are thinking about different situations, the client can interject with more carefully considered thoughts to curtail the negative feelings and subsequent behaviors that they want to change.

Family-Based Therapy (FBT)

Most eating disorder clients have family, particularly younger clients. Managing an eating disorder and reaching a state of full recovery takes time and effort sustained over a long period. Therapists know that it will make things easier for the client if their family is on board with the treatment process, which is why they tend to encourage FBT.

With FBT, the family is invited to participate in therapy. They can come and experience therapy sessions and learn how they can help their loved ones on the path to recovery.


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.