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How to find a therapist for eating disorders

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), and binge eating disorder (BED) are complex conditions, and restoring physical and mental health in the wake of these experiences is often equally complex.

The process can last months, or even years, which is why it's so important to have a good relationship with your therapist. These experts are often pillars of the recovery process, with their knowledge, advice, and general attitude guiding you through the ups and downs of the journey toward healing.

If you're just starting the recovery process, want to work with a different eating disorder specialist, or are otherwise looking for a new member of your treatment team, there are a few considerations to keep in mind which can help you find a therapist who's most in line with your needs, and who you can trust to join you on this important journey.

Last updated on 
July 14, 2023
July 14, 2023
Therapy for eating disorders
In this article

Where to look for a therapist

Sometimes, finding the right mental health professional simply comes down to knowing where to look.

If you're just starting your search for an eating disorder therapist, there are a few forums which can help point you in the right direction.

Insurance directories

Most insurance companies have a directory of doctors, therapists, nutritionists, and other experts they work with, which is available for policy holders to use. And utilizing these tools can be beneficial in a number of ways.

Most online directories will not only turn up the names, websites, and contact information of these experts, but allow you to fine-tune your search, looking for professionals with specific backgrounds, locations, or specialities, among other preferences.

And most insurance directories will also only lead you to doctors that are in-network with your insurance company. This can make a huge difference in the overall cost of treatment, or the likelihood of having therapy sessions covered by your insurance.

Word of mouth or recommendations

Even in an age where algorithms and other online tools help tailor each search result, word of mouth can be a meaningful measure of quality.

For eating disorder therapy recommendations, specifically, it may be helpful to consult members of a support group, or ask for advice in an online forum dedicated to the subject.

Your primary care physician may also be able to recommend a good therapist or program, or you can get further guidance from a number of eating disorder hotlines, which often offer information and resources on available treatment.

Online searches

Online searches can be a powerful tool for finding what you need, but they can be equally tricky to navigate—or fully trust.

Searching for an eating disorder expert in your area can turn up any number of names or programs. But the results that turn up first may not necessarily be the best options.

If you utilize this route, make sure to independently research any therapist or program you're interested in. Try to find reviews of the doctor or program and evidence that the doctor or program is properly licensed. And if you're relying on insurance to help cover the cost of treatment, it's also imperative to make sure the doctor or program will accept your plan.

Types of eating disorder treatment

Another way to start your search for eating disorder therapists is by determining the type of eating disorder therapy you're most interested in.

There are a number of methods that have been shown to help with AN, BN, BED, and other eating disorders. [1] Zeroing in on a modality you like can help you zero in on the kind of therapist you may most like to work with.

Cognitive behavioral therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy
Acceptance commitment therapy
Family-based therapy

Qualities in a therapist

Once you've started to narrow down your choices, you may find a number of eating disorder specialists you're interested in working with.

To further help you determine the particular therapist you'd like to help with your eating disorder recovery, you can start considering a few other factors.

Experience/Specializations

It's essential that any mental health professional you work with is properly licensed and credentialed. It's often possible to check on these qualifications online, by calling the practice directly, or by checking with the appropriate state agencies.

Aside from that, you may want to do a bit more research on someone's professional background or specializations. How long someone has been practicing, the kinds of patients they usually work with, and their time spent specifically on helping patients with eating disorders or on facilitating the type of therapy sessions you're interested in can help draw distinctions between otherwise similarly-qualified therapists.

Inclusivity and sensitivity

One of the most fundamental aspects of a successful relationship with a therapist is trust. You will likely find yourself opening up to this person about sensitive, upsetting, and private thoughts, and receiving guidance from them about important matters.

That's why it's important to find a therapist who will treat you with dignity and respect, regardless of your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cultural background, age, disability status, or weight.

If there's an aspect of your identity or background that's particularly important to you, you may even want to look for a therapist who shares that identifying characteristic, outlook, or experience.

Treatment philosophy

Similar to the different methods for treating eating disorders are different guiding philosophies that a therapist may adhere to when treating a patient.

These perspectives can make a large impact on the therapy experience, influencing everything from the general attitude a therapist embodies during sessions to the types of treatment they may or may not endorse, teach, or recommend.

Many therapists will include a summary of their overall outlook and philosophy on their website, but you can also ask a therapist to elaborate on their thoughts about treatment outcomes, communication, and treatment methods during your intake session.

Learn about Within's treatment program and philosophy
Learn >

Rapport

The rapport, or general relationship and ability to communicate, you share with a mental health professional is perhaps the most important measure of a good therapist. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most difficult qualities to predict.

In this case, the best option may simply be trial and error. But there are a few feelings or details you can pay attention to during sessions which may help you assess this factor.

If your therapist continually interrupts you, rather than listens to what you have to say, that may be a sign of a bad relationship. The same goes for invalidating or otherwise ignoring any concerns you may raise and disrespecting your time by showing up late to appointments or leaving early.

Overall, you should feel seen, heard, and respected during these sessions, if not completely understood. If you continually feel otherwise, it may be time to consider changing therapists.

Other considerations

Other than the professional qualities of a therapist and the type of therapy they specialize in, there are a number of broader factors which should be kept in mind when choosing members of your eating disorder treatment team.

Location

An old adage in the medical world states that the best treatment is the one a patient will take. And when it comes to therapy, location can make a big difference in your desire or ability to attend regular sessions.

A clinic that's either close by or convenient to get to will likely make it easier for you to continue treatment. And if you have challenges around transportation or mobility or live far from in-person practices, you may also want to explore online therapy options, which can be just as effective as in-person treatment in many cases. [5]

Insurance coverage

Treatment for eating disorders is frequently lengthy and, unfortunately, also often expensive. Because of this, a majority of people rely on their health insurance policies to help them cover costs.

If you also need or want this type of financial assistance, it's essential to ensure your therapist accepts your health care plan before you start attending sessions. Clearing up this question ahead of time may feel like an extra step, but it can help prevent future frustrations or complications.

Evidence-based practices

As mental health and eating disorders in particular continue to be studied, more therapies and treatments have been developed to help. But not all of these treatments are received the same way by healthcare practitioners or insurance companies.

Evidence-based practices describe those therapies, such as CBT, which have been clinically tested and analyzed over the years, to the point where the medical community generally considers them to be a safe and effective treatment. And along with their historical success rate, these methods are also usually favored by insurance companies for covered treatment.

That's not to say that more experimental or newer therapies can't be effective. But if you're considering one of these options, it's important to do your due diligence in researching both the therapy and the practitioner administering it, and to understand that it's highly unlikely your insurance will help pay for these treatments.

Remote treatment for more flexibility and personalized care

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, it's important to seek out help.

Finding a therapist that not only aligns with your needs but aligns with your values and recovery goals is an important aspect of your recovery journey. And taking the time to choose the best therapist for you can ultimately make a positive difference in your experience.

At Within, we want to help ensure you get the help you need, no matter what you're going through. Overcoming an eating disorder can be difficult, but with the right kind of help, a healthier and happier future is always possible.

Call us to learn more

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Kass, A. E., Kolko, R. P., & Wilfley, D. E. (2013). Psychological treatments for eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 26(6), 549–555.
  2. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed May 2023.
  3. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (2022, March 21). Psychology Today. Accessed May 2023.
  4. Sheldon-Dean, H. (2023, February 8). Family-Based Treatment for Eating Disorders. Child Mind Institute. Accessed May 2023. 
  5. Sarkis, S. (2021, February 14). Online Therapy Just As Effective As In-Person Sessions. Forbes. Accessed May 2023.

FAQs

How do therapists help with eating disorders?

There are many ways a therapist may help with an eating disorder.

These experts are trained in many different techniques for helping people understand their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Most forms of therapy involve helping people recognize their unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, identify potential triggers, and learn and practice healthier coping mechanisms.

Some therapists are trained in specialized techniques, such as exposure therapy, and can help patients walk through more targeted therapy sessions.

And, at minimum, a good therapist can help provide an outlet for you to express your thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Having someone to talk to about these issues can help you find clarity or gain a new perspective on things, and keeping a regular appointment with a therapist can help keep you accountable to your actions and to yourself.

Can a therapist diagnose an eating disorder?

It depends. 

It’s possible for a range of medical professionals to diagnose someone with an eating disorder, including physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists. In many cases, a licensed therapist or dietician can also make an official eating disorder diagnosis, but whether that diagnosis is accepted can vary based on state laws or insurance company or treatment program policies. 

If you need an eating disorder diagnosis, you should speak with your therapist directly about how they can help in the process.

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