Treatment for anorexia nervosa can be broken down into 6 parts:

  1. Forming a firm connection with people who can help a person to get better.
  2. Treating any dangerous medical problems.
  3. Getting to a healthier weight range.
  4. Getting comfort from eating in a regular and healthy way.
  5. Getting support about thoughts and feelings.
  6. Receiving support from family, friends, and colleagues.

A number of these steps can be undertaken at once. Usually, it is best to have a firm connection with people who are able to help first. It is also very important to treat any medical issues early on in order to prevent long-term problems.

Step 1 - Connecting with people who can help

People who are struggling with anorexia nervosa are often reluctant to connect with others to get help. Sometimes, people are frightened that they will be pushed to gain weight, and often, they are concerned about their privacy. It is important to know that there are many people who can really help. Most professionals who help people with anorexia nervosa know how frightening it is to think about gaining weight and will take a gentle and sensitive approach. Also, professionals are taught to keep information private and will work hard to protect your privacy and confidentiality.

Step 2 - Treating dangerous medical problems

A number of serious medical problems can accompany anorexia nervosa. Sadly, people can become very seriously ill and die if they do not get medical attention for certain problems. Therefore it is very important that people with anorexia nervosa receive regular medical attention. Some medical problems should be considered an emergency, including: profound weakness, fainting, irregular heart beats, chest pain, abdominal pain, and mental confusion. Treatment should be directed by medical doctors and nurses and, in some circumstances, may require hospital care.

Step 3 - Getting to a healthier weight range

An important part of recovery from anorexia nervosa involves getting to a healthier weight range. This is often very frightening, and sometimes, people are worried that they will increase their weight too quickly or become overweight. This is an area in which people with anorexia nervosa generally need the help of a health professional who they can trust. When a person with anorexia nervosa whose weight has been too low is getting to a healthier weight range, it helps to:

  • avoid looking in the mirror too often
  • avoid weighing oneself too often
  • get rid of clothing that is too small or too tight
  • spend time with friends or family who help one feel comfortable
  • wear loose, comfortable clothing

Step 4 - Getting comfort from eating

Most people with anorexia nervosa narrow the range of foods they eat and often are fearful of foods that contain fat. They may count calories and feel they must follow certain "rules" about what they can and cannot eat. An important part of getting better from anorexia nervosa involves developing more comfort and freedom from eating. Again, this is an area where health professionals can help. It is also helpful for people with anorexia nervosa to spend time with friends or family members who are themselves comfortable with eating, and eat in a healthy manner.

Step 5 - Getting support about thoughts and feelings

An important step in recovering from anorexia nervosa involves getting help about the thoughts and feelings that accompany the disorder. Commonly, people struggling with anorexia nervosa find their thoughts focus excessively on weight and shape and, often, it is difficult to shift thoughts away from this focus. Techniques developed in cognitive therapy (a form of psychological treatment that is used to help various problems) can be helpful in diminishing the preoccupation with shape and weight that commonly occurs in anorexia nervosa. Also, a wide range of feelings can accompany anorexia nervosa; irritability and mood swings are common, but the specific emotions that are present vary widely from person to person depending on individual life circumstances and other factors. It is important to identify people who can help work on thoughts and feelings; various health professionals can provide therapy or counseling for these purposes. For many people with anorexia nervosa (particularly younger people), family therapy has been found to be an effective treatment.

Step 6 - Support from family, friends, and colleagues

In order to recover from anorexia nervosa, it is important to have opportunities to experience healthy aspects of life. Friendships, family connections, classes or courses, work experiences, and recreation provide opportunities to enjoy important aspects of life and diminish the grip anorexia nervosa has formerly held. Sometimes, people who have been struggling with anorexia nervosa have become disconnected with such opportunities. It can require some effort to reconnect with previous people and interests and to develop new relationships and activities.

Elliot Goldner, MD, 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team