Treating Eating Disorders: The Importance of Self Care

By Brie Shelly

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Caucasian Woman Practicing Yoga At SeashoreClinicians who work with eating disorders are highly dedicated professionals. Since eating disorders revolve around some very fundamental human experiences—eating to survive and how we feel about our bodies and ourselves—the work can stir up one’s own personal feelings about eating, body weight, and self-esteem. Taking time for physical and psychological self-care can be overlooked when working with clients who have eating disorders.

Warren, Crowley, Olivardia, and Schoen (2009) conducted a study of 43 individuals that explored treatment providers’ experiences of working in the field of eating disorders. Most providers reported experiences in which clients asked questions or commented on the provider’s weight and shape, or if they felt monitored, examined, or evaluated by their clients. In some ways, this is no surprise. Providers are also role models, and clients will be curious about whether their providers practice what they preach. When asked if their view of food has changed since working with clients with eating disorders, 70% of providers said yes, and 54% admitted to actually changing their own eating behaviors since working in the field (Warren, Crowley, Olivardia, & Schoen, 2009). So working in the field clearly has an effect on clinicians’ own behavior. For example, clinicians in the study reported an increased awareness about food as a fuel and source of nutrition and attempt to eat more mindfully.

The authors provided advice for therapists who are new to working with patients with eating disorders. Three important recommendations were: having a supervisor and working as part of a multidisciplinary team; maintaining social support; and maintaining a realistic perspective that some eating disorders are chronic conditions.  Supervision provides all therapists (both new and seasoned) with someone to talk with about the experience of treating eating disorders. Being part of a multidisciplinary team allows for feedback on any questions or concerns from a wide range of providers. Different perspectives invariably lead to a richer conceptualization of what is happening with each patient. Working as part of a team can help buffer providers from shouldering too much responsibility and can help you focus on your strongest realm of influence. Most participants in Warren et al.’s study stated that the best form of self-care was engaging in conversation with other colleagues about any emotions or triggers.

The best way to care for someone with an eating disorder is to ensure that you are also caring for yourself. The same philosophy holds for providers. They too need to monitor their own well being and to take time for self care. Balance, self-care, and sharing the challenges of your work with other professionals are critical to optimizing how helpful we can be in providing the best possible care for our clients.

Warren, C., Crowley, M. E., Olivardia, R., & Schoen, A. (2009). Treating patients with eating disorders: An examination of treatment providers’ experiences. Eating Disorders, 17(1), 27-45.

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About The Brie Shelly

Brie Shelly, MS, CRC, received her Masters in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling from the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. While studying psychology, exercise and sports science ...

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