Let’s fine tune CBT and psychodynamic approaches with biology

A dear and respected colleague wrote me, “I of course get the survival mechanisms but I also hear the wrenching confessions from my patients about how much they hate their bodies…My approach is focused more on helping patients and other patients understand the famine concepts without directly finding fault with well accepted and researched approaches like CBT-E.”

She gave me permission to post her comment and my response:

Yes, dear colleague,

“They overvalue body size for self-esteem” is like fingernails on the blackboard to an old feminist like me. Do you think if we had a disorder caused by adaptations to life in the Pleistocene that was choosing some of our best and brightest young men, something that made them willing to sacrifice their health and their future health to an abstract idea, we would be so ready to call them vain?

Wait! We do have such a thing. We call it love of sports. And we call them heroes.

“I am afraid of getting fat,” the explanation that anorexia nervosa sufferers readily give us today for their fear of eating and hyperactivity was not given by patients before 1960s. They said they felt full, that their stomach was sensitive. All these explanations are confabulations; artifacts of the way the mind makes sense of urges from the hypothalamus, insula and prefrontal cortex to ignore hunger.

In the early Middle Ages pious Catholics with anorexia nervosa said they wanted to be less led by carnal appetites. Then observers admired their Chirst-like abilities to work tirelessly and live with little food. St Gregory of Nyssa marveled, “What human words can make you realize such a life as this, a life on the borderline between human and celestial nature? That nature should be free of human weakness is more than can be expected from mankind, but these women fell short of the angelic and unmaterial only in so far as they appeared in bodily form, were contained in a human frame, and were dependent on the organs of sense” (AD 378).”

Contrast this with Vitousek, Watson and Wilson (1998) observation, “Accurate empathy is unusually difficult to sustain with anorexic clients….  Many clinicians dislike working with anorexia patients because of the perception that clients habitually deny, deceive, and rationalize to protect their symptomatology” (p. 392). They continue, “anorexics’ denial and sometimes defiant stance can adversely affect the therapeutic relationship, and may contribute to punitive treatments, patient abandonment and intense emotional reactions by professionals” (p. 394).

This is why I think contemporary CBT-e, psychodynamic and interpersonal conceptualizations that anorexia nervosa is a due to a personal conflict or values are pernicious. Anorexia nervosa is caused by an ancient famine-selected agenda that is as impersonal and strong as the one that makes some store extra pounds.

Understanding the brain’s hiccups and ancient agendas can relieve people of unfair self-attributions. For example, I once saw a new mother who was tormented by the thoughts that she would take a sharp knife and stab her baby. She told me she used to have such thought about the family dog and her husband. She had never hurt the baby, had never harmed any one.

She explained that she and her husband had been unable to conceive and then with help they had had this precious child. She said that she loved him unbearably, but these thoughts intruded and she couldn’t trust herself. She was distraught and miserable.

I consulted with an OCD expert and he told me this terrible symptom is well known to those who work with OCD. It generally doesn’t mean the mother is a danger to her child; rather it’s an artifact of the way the brain works. Because one must think of the dangers one needs to guard against, for people with certain kind of an overactive amygdala the thought gets stuck. They are so appalled that they could even think of such a vile act, they think it means they will do it, so they have to remind themselves to never do it, and then they think, why would that thought come into my mind? and it spirals on.

For this young mother, simply explaining how the checking part of the brain works, that it didn’t mean she was a danger to her child, dog or husband, resolved the symptom. Now when such thoughts come to her she simply says, oh, that’s my amygdala checking, and can move her thoughts along.

Haven’t we all had patients who claim they never knew or cared what they weighed and never cared about fashion, but now find the thought of gaining a pound unbearable? They are ashamed of caring so much because it makes them look vain. Nisbet said we observe our behavior and derive self-attributions. Thus, “I am behaving vainly” becomes “I am vain.”

I tell such patients: “Your fear of eating is not because you are vain. Of course you care about your appearance. All women do, but your weight suddenly feels like life and death because once it was for your ancestors. You have anorexia genes because your ancestors survived by resisting their hunger and moving. Gaining a pound means you have failed to resist your hunger and move enough. Anorexia makes gaining a pound feel like the worst thing. It steals your future to help you migrate today because it was migrate or die in the Pleistocene. That’s why it feels so important, not because you are more vain than women at their normal weight.

When you are normal weight it won’t feel like life and death anymore. You will be able to use your energy for your own life, for your own agenda instead of anorexia’s.

It is true that some food phobias persist because they get wired into the brain’s primitive fear center. But we can work on those just as we do any phobia. And it’s true that we live in a fat phobic culture that taunts women to lose weight, and you will have to strengthen your spine to resist going on fad diet, but the crazy, vehement feeling that it would be dangerous and terribly wrong to eat fades with weight restoration.

I believe that cognitive behavioral, as well as psychodynamic therapists, DBT, Compassion focused therapy, ACT, etc can be very helpful with AN patients. But let’s fine-tune these approaches with what we are learning about how AN works. It’s busy at the most primitive levels of the brain and that makes a difference in interpreting a person’s anorexic behaviors and urges.

In my next post: An evolutionary reason that women care so much about meeting the current beauty ideal.

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Social support was probably crucial in the Pleistocene for AN recovery

I just watched a Dr. OZ show with an extremely emaciated woman who had had anorexia for most of her adult life. It is another illustration of why we need a new paradigm. Dr. OZ seemed to think she chose her illness and he moved quickly to a facile psychological interpretation—she wants to be taken care of—that blames her for the AN. He naively urged her to get well so she can see him again and perhaps he believes for him she will. If she doesn’t get well his narcissistic injury will lead him to blame her. He’s a good proxy for every person who interacts with her.

He presents her with a new therapist who says they will get to the bottom of why she doesn’t eat and then she will get better. As though she hasn’t tried to do this so many times over the last twenty years.

Oz comments that in contrast to other seriously ill people he has had on the show, she has no one in the audience rooting for her. She lost her mother to sudden cancer, which exacerbated weight loss that began trying to lose the freshman fifteen in college. Presumably 20 years ago her grieving father was counseled to keep his distance. Her husband had no way to understand AN except that she was willfully killing herself and he left. Friends, probably thinking she cared more about her figure than about getting well also left. Without a village to help her recover she became chronically ill.

I think anorexia nervosa is so deadly today because we blame victims for their plight and expect them to get well on their own. AN evolved in the context of deeply social bands and I believe the whole tribe helped their anorexic scout recover. Anorexia outside of the environment in which it evolved can be deadly. Starving rats and mice will run themselves to death in a lab cage, but in the wild their anorexic behaviors would have brought them to a better foraging area.

Evolution doesn’t have to fix what the tribe can fix. For example, when you have nursing problems you find they happen a lot. This makes one wonder why natural selection didn’t weed out these mistakes long ago. Without the La Leche League’s wise counsel my son would have been on formula and before formula he might have died. I think that when we lived in bands there was usually an informal “La Leche League” of wise old women who carried such knowledge. Like the old mare that shows their wild horse herd where to eat, drink, bed down, old women carried precious knowledge for the tribe. Foolproof nursing did not have to evolve.

By the same reasoning, if the family and tribe helped her recover, it didn’t matter if a solitary person couldn’t because there were no solitary people in the Pleistocene.

Next time: What is wrong with CBT for eating disorders.

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Modeling the heritability of Anorexia Nervosa


Shan Guisinger, Ph.D

David Schuldberg, Ph.D.

The University of Montana– Missoula

Growing genetic evidence indicates that symptoms of anorexia nervosa (AN), representing illness today, were selected in the past. Eight genes have been identified in AN individuals that decrease appetite and increase activity, triggered by falling weight. The adapted-to-flee-famine hypothesis (Affh) has proposed that abilities to ignore hunger, deny starvation, and move energetically are remnants of archaic adaptations that helped some in starving hunter-gatherer bands lead others from depleted home range. Yet, only 1-2% carrying the genes develop the disorder, which also exhibits sex differences. Maynard Smith clarified when natural selection results in stable polymorphisms; density-dependent selection describes how net individual benefit depends on behavioral strategies of others. We model effects of a variety of variables — including number of potential leaders, survival of those leaving home, refeeding success, reproductive outcomes for “successful” anorectics, and syndrome lethality — evaluating effects on the prevalence and sex distribution of AN.

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Adapted to Flee Famine: Adding an Evolutionary Perspective

Psychological Review 2003

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is commonly attributed to psychological conflicts, attempts to be fashionably slender, neuroendocrine dysfunction, or some combination of these factors. Considerable research reveals these theories to be incomplete. Psychological and societal factors account for the decision to diet but not for the phenomenology of the disorder; theories of biological defects fail to explain neuroendocrine findings that suggest coordinated physiological mechanisms. This article presents evidence that AN’s distinctive symptoms of restricting food, denial of starvation, and hyperactivity are likely to be evolved adaptive mechanisms that facilitated ancestral nomadic foragers leaving depleted environments; genetically susceptible individuals who lose too much weight may trigger these archaic adaptations. This hypothesis accounts for the occurrence of AN-like syndromes in both humans and animals and is consistent with changes observed in the physiology, cognitions, and behavior of patients with AN.

View the PDF version of this paper here .

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