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New therapy for hard to cure eating disorders

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Although therapies for eating disorders have shown some progress over the last 20 years, none in particular has been overwhelmingly successful. Faculty of education graduate student Reana Saraceni is doing her best to change this.

Saraceni is currently running a study looking at the effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for women with eating disorders, which views psychological suffering primarily as avoidance of unpleasant thoughts, emotions and situations. This avoidance may be helpful short-term, but long-term it is damaging because the underlying problem still exists.

A fairly new form of behavioural therapy, The act approach is different from many traditional therapy forms. Whereas more common techniques attempt to change thought content, act focuses on changing a person's relationship to their thoughts.

A method known as "defusion" is taught, which tries to alter the believability or attachment to a thought, rather than altering how frequently the thought occurs. It is hypothesized that by doing this, people will be better able to make value-based choices around behaviour rather than avoidance-based choices.

The primary goal of act is to increase psychological flexibility, the ability to be in the present and choose behaviour based on what will lead to the valued outcome.

According to Saraceni, act is likely to be beneficial for treating eating disorders because for those afflicted, "large portions of time are spent thinking about the past or the future. While this is happening, people are generally not in contact with the present moment."

She sees the difficulties those with eating disorders have with experiential avoidance, which results in the loss of certain values. "Helping people tap into their values [through act] is often instrumental in increasing motivation to make behavioural change," said Saraceni.

Twenty women have been a part of the study so far. Many have expressed that even though they may have felt ambivalence initially being in a group setting, the mindfulness component of the therapy was helpful in "allowing them to be aware of their thoughts and feelings and be present with them," said Saraceni.

Groups consist of three to six participants and are generally held on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings for six weeks. Saraceni aims to have 40 women in total participate, and participants must be 18 or older.

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