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Strategies to motivate eating disorder patients

June 18, 2012
by Judy Scheel, PhD, LCSW
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Having patience can be critical to seeing individuals succeed
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 Those who suffer from eating disorders are often wracked with denial and ambivalence about recovery, which makes these types of illnesses harder to treat. The concept of denial has been interpreted by clinicians and operationalized by research in so many diverse ways that it not only lost its original meaning as a defense mechanism, but also became a confusing notion. Research on denial often centers on a lack of agreement as to whether it is unconscious or conscious, a trait vs. a state, an indication of psychological disturbance or a functional coping mechanism.

Some professionals believe that the purpose of denial may be what holds a shattered self-esteem system together. Therefore, it is integral to have support available once the patient begins to acknowledge the illness. Helping these individuals find their motivation for recovery can sometimes be stymied by the circumstances under which they accept the need for treatment in the first place (i.e., being forced into recovery due to extreme malnourishment or other harmful symptoms). Recognizing that a problem exists, and then discovering their own reasons to begin the recovery process, can contribute to creating and sustaining motivation.

Before beginning to motivate someone toward recovery, it’s important to take a few precautionary steps:

·   The sufferer must be seen by a medical professional first so he or she can diagnose and assess the issues from a medical perspective, including the degree to which the individual is medically compromised.

·   The individual also must be assessed by a mental health or medical professional to determine the degree to which the individual accepts that the eating disorder is not functioning independent from his/her psychological and mental states.

·   Motivation is not possible when the patient is in an acute medical state.

Supporting motivation

Here are some ways professionals can help their patients find the motivation needed to begin recovery, and to set up a support structure that allows them to succeed:

 ·Do not prescribe too many behavioral changes during the early phase of treatment unless medical risk is heightened or you need to determine if the individual can do the work in an outpatient setting.

·     Remind the patient that this is not an easy—or fast—fix. Help them see that patience, understanding and empathy are critical to the process.

 ·     With every step forward, there will be steps backward. Don’t show frustration, and don’t let these setbacks discourage the sufferer. Keep focusing on the ultimate goal.