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Treating Body Image & Eating Disorders with Wilderness Therapy

Posted by Paul Goddard, Ph.D., Therapist at Entrada on March 14, 2017

A close friend of mine experienced intense body image and eating issues when we were teens. One day, years later, she confided in me how much it meant to her that I always saw her as a person, never as a disorder. She described our friendship as a lifeline that helped her survive those extremely difficult years. When everyone else was worried about how much she did or didn’t eat, or if she went to the bathroom soon after a meal, she knew that I would talk, play, and savor life’s adventure with her. Years later, after having read many books, attended the best seminars exploring everything from the biology of refeeding syndrome to sociological factors, and after working with many people who struggle with body image and eating issues, I still remind myself that I am interacting with a person, NOT a disorder.

I believe that this points us to some of the key components of wilderness-based treatment that make it so helpful for young people who are struggling with body image and eating issues:

  1. A focus on embracing the adventure of life, rather than just trying to beat a disorder.
  2. The strong emphasis on the body as an amazing tool to accomplish great things, rather than the enemy to be beaten into submission.
  3. The understanding that food is fuel to power this amazing machine – the body.
  4. Celebration of strength – Mind / Body / Spirit, rather than mere appearance.

Of course, there are many other factors and therapeutic elements in wilderness-based treatment that contribute to its effectiveness in the treatment of body image and food issues. These include: the absence of mirrors and media that escalate negative self-evaluation and unfair comparisons to airbrushed celebrities; the presence of strong mentors like the highly trained field staff and therapists at Evoke; the involvement of parents and family in the process of establishing healthy independence while at the same time working to heal relationships; and a strong focus on choice vs. control, to name just a few.

She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful, for the way she thought. She was beautiful, for the sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loved. She was beautiful, for her ability to make other people smile, even if she was sad. No, she wasn't beautiful for something as temporary as her looks. She was beautiful, deep down to her soul. She is beautiful. ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

As I contemplate the journey of a young lady who recently came to wilderness therapy directly from an eating disorder specific clinic, it is striking to think of the progress she made during the relatively short period of time that she was at Evoke. While she acknowledged that the eating disorder clinic had played an extremely important role in her initial recovery by helping her to achieve a more sustainable weight as well as metabolic stability, it had also been a very difficult experience for her. She spoke of the extreme tension at meal times in the clinic when all of her peers dreaded being “forced” to eat. She was delighted to join the wilderness group at meals, as her peers often relished the nourishment that they received from the food after a day of hiking and outdoor activities – even the wilderness staple of beans & rice was happily consumed!

“Tired of trying to cram her sparkly star-shaped self into society’s beige square holes, she chose to embrace her ridiculous awesomeness and shine like the freaking supernova she is.”- Unknown

Trauma is often associated with body image and eating issues, and actively working to resolve trauma can play an important role in healing and reconnecting to self and others. Learning to express emotions in an honest and assertive manner is vital, and is an essential component of wilderness therapy.

There are so many tools available for helping young people to heal, but I would like to mention just a few of my favorites. Because each participant in the program is different, her/his needs will also be different, and care and treatment must be tailored to her/his requirements.

Young people have often become profoundly disconnected from their bodies. Wilderness Therapy provides a spectacular opportunity to reconnect. Specific to body awareness, I sometimes invite participants to explore the principles of Intuitive Eating (Tribole, E. & Resch, E. 2012), which focuses on “integrating attunement of mind, body, and food.”

Books by Jenni Schaefer (Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life) have been helpful to many young people. Helping teens to place in perspective the influence of media on their self-image can be assisted with Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women by Jean Kilbourne.

" I personally have struggled as an athlete! I think an interesting aspect about it, is how for some it's about the physical food and control and for others it isn't about food. Food can be surface level problem but there's something deeper. " – Former Evoke student now in college

Thank you so much for taking the time to share in this discussion with me. I hope that you will comment with favorite resources that you use to facilitate healing in young people who are struggling with negative body image and/or an unhealthy relationship with food, or perhaps that you have found useful in your own life’s journey.


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