Nontraditional treatments often address aspects of eating disorder experience that conventional therapies may miss. In this post I review some experiential and alternative therapies many people with eating disorders have found helpful.
If an experiential or alternative therapy appeals to you, talk with your primary therapist about it. The two of you can figure out how it might contribute to your recovery process. If you’ve been in inpatient or residential care, some of these treatments may be familiar to you.
Experiential therapies increase your awareness of being in the present moment. Practices that help you focus on your moment–by–moment thoughts, feelings and sensations ¬not only anchor you in the present, they increase your connection to yourself. If you have an eating disorder, connecting to yourself probably hasn’t felt all that rewarding. Experiential therapies may help you tune in more comfortably and effectively.
If you’re picturing the dancercise class at your gym, this isn’t it. Dance/movement therapy (DMT) uses body sensation and body movement as a source of healing for people with eating disorders. DMT therapists believe this makes perfect sense because the body is the battleground where the eating disorder occurs. Typical goals for DMT include:
- Improved body image
- Increased ability to know and express feelings
- A more solid sense of body boundaries and personal space
- Increased capacity for pleasure in movement
Dance/movement therapists must have a master’s degree and meet other requirements set by their professional organization, the American Dance Therapy Association.
Art therapy allows you to use the stuff of artistic expression—drawing or painting materials, clay, dioramas, mosaic, what-have-you—to explore your feelings and discover more about who you are. Creating an object to represent difficult feelings or hidden aspects of yourself can present some distinct advantages. For example:
- You get a little distance, as if the feeling is outside you, so exploration feels safer.
- You can experiment with ways to control or manage the feeling.
- You can explore visually how one part of you fits in with other parts and with the whole picture of you.
All of this, of course, works best when you have the support and guidance of someone who understands why it all matters. You want to work with a registered art therapist (ATR). And you want him or her to have some additional training in working with eating disordered clients.
Like art therapy, music therapy promotes healing through an expressive form that doesn’t involve talk. Music can often be the added ingredient that allows people to take risks and move their treatment forward. Music therapists assure you this requires no musical abilities. It can involve making music, writing it, hearing it, or listening to it.
If you have an eating disorder, music therapy may help you
- Express yourself: You may find that the music of others brings out emotions you can’t put into words. Or you may discover that making your own music—writing songs, singing, or playing an instrument— helps you express yourself.
- Relax: Music goes right to the part of the brain that’s in charge of relaxation.
- Improve your mood: You can pair the relaxation you get from music with experiences that make you anxious, like eating or gaining weight. You can weave the sense of well-being that certain music or music-making gives you with times when your mood is low.
Find ways to participate safely with others: In a group music therapy setting, you can practice “chiming in,” taking the lead, trying something creative, getting and giving feedback, and making mistakes—all in a supportive environment.
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) sets the education and clinical training standards for music therapists. These standards include completion of a college level music therapy program. Professionals with the designations RMT, CMT, or ACMT have met AMTA standards and are qualified to practice music therapy.
Alternative Therapies and Practices
Alternative therapies are only “alternative” from the perspective of Western medical tradition. Most of the treatments and practices I review below are actually centuries old and considered mainstream in the cultures that produced them. In the current era, people are thinking more about mind-body integration and, as a result, alternative practices are getting more attention (and respect!) There seems to be a natural place for them in increasing the effectiveness of eating disorder treatment.
Meditation is a practice of focusing the mind. It comes in a variety of “brands,” any of which can be useful for becoming calmer and more centered.
One particular brand of meditation, known as mindfulness meditation, has shown some promise for people with eating disorders. In other meditation practices, the aim is to clear your mind. Mindfulness, instead, has the goal of helping you create a different relationship to what is in your mind in the present moment. For example, mindfulness meditation teaches you to observe but not avoid or judge current thoughts, feelings, or emotions.
For people with eating disorders, mindfulness can introduce a new way to deal with eating urges. A study at Indiana State University has already shown good results for people with binge eating disorder. Others use mindfulness meditation to help alleviate the emotional distress that goes with eating disorders.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice. Acupuncturists believe our bodies have energy meridians or channels and that ill-health— physical and psychological—results from blockages or imbalances in these channels. Inserting tiny needles at strategic meridian points is intended to free up blockages so energy can flow freely again and the body can regain balance. Acupuncture has been used successfully to treat many ailments in Western culture.
Acupuncture may help with the physical discomforts of your eating disorder. It can be used to ease symptoms of the digestive system, like bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It also can begin to set your digestive system right in a more long-term way. It may be effective at getting your hormonal system back on track as well.
Acupuncture has also been used successfully to treat some of the psychological companion disorders that go with eating disorders. Known for its calming effect, it has a good track record for relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. Acupuncture has also helped people who are detoxifying from alcohol and drug addictions.
If you just can’t stand the thought of needles, acupressure is an alternative form of acupuncture that uses pressure to unblock meridians.
Massage has long been used to produce emotional release, improve mood, and increase relaxation. Studies show that people with body image disturbances often have been deprived of nurturing touch. Researchers found that women with anorexia and bulimia responded positively when massage was added to their treatment programs. Women who received massage were less anxious and less driven to be thin than women who did not receive it. They felt better about their bodies, their mood improved, and their need for perfection decreased.
Yoga is a set of practices from ancient India that use body postures, breathing, and meditation to create physical health and peace of mind. The postures call on you to develop greater balance, flexibility, strength, and stamina. Yoga practice requires that you read feedback from your body in order to know how far to push in a particular posture and when to stop.
If you have an eating disorder, you’ve been in a state of war with your body. Recovery requires that you and your body make peace. Yoga appears to be a good peacemaker. Developing awareness of body cues helps put you and your body back on the same page. According to a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, women who regularly practiced yoga were less preoccupied with physical appearance, more satisfied with the way they looked, and showed fewer disordered eating attitudes and better regulated eating than women who didn’t practice yoga.
Final Notes about Experiential
and Alternative Therapies
Note I: If you have a trauma history, one or more of these experiential or alternative treatments may be especially helpful for you. This is particularly because of the way they encourage mind-body integration. Just be sure you select a practitioner who understands the special needs of trauma clients.
Note II: Many insurance companies are discovering that market demand for greater patient choice makes providing coverage for experiential and alternative therapies a plus. However, coverage is still likely to be determined on a case-by-case basis, using a standard of medical necessity. Coverage for alternative therapies may be a wellness perk for some plans.