Clinicians 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 patients 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 patients asked questions or commented on the provider’s weight and shape, or if they felt monitored, examined, or evaluated by their patients. In some ways, this is no surprise. Providers are also role models, and patients will be curious about whether their providers practice what they preach. When asked if their view of food has changed since working with patients 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.
A few years back, we sponsored the Caring Is Caring program that encouraged parents and partners to look after themselves as they were caring for a loved one with an eating disorder. We emphasized that the best way to care for someone with an eating disorder was to ensure that you were also caring for yourself. The same philosophy holds for providers. They too need to monitor their own wellbeing 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 patients.
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.
By: Brie Shelly
Photo: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho