Focus on perfectionism with anorexia research

Reducing ‘perfectionistic’ thinking as a way to improve treatment for adolescent anorexia, is the focus of new research by Griffith University.

Anorexia can begin at any age, although the years 13-18 pose the highest risk of onset. It is the third most common chronic disease after asthma and obesity amongst females aged 15-24 years.

While the results of family based therapy (FBT) have so far provided promising results, there are still a significant number of individuals diagnosed with anorexia who do not have a favourable outcome, says researcher and PhD candidate from the School of Applied Psychology Kim Hurst.

“Even when treatment results in positive outcomes, it is believed that the majority of patients are still left with residual symptoms of obsessional worry and intrusive cognitive distortions which maintain the risk of relapse or lead to a protracted illness duration.

“It’s agreed amongst clinicians that ‘perfectionism’ – where an individual puts pressure on themself to meet high standards which then influences the way they think about themself –
plays a major role in anorexia. However to date, there has been little research conducted with adolescents in this area and insufficient data demonstrating efficacy for any specific
treatments for them.”

Reducing perfectionist thinking patterns

A main aim of Ms Hurst’s study, therefore, is to reduce the perfectionist thinking patterns which are commonly seen in adolescent anorexia sufferers.

Working with participants aged between 14 and 17 with an anorexia diagnosis, Ms Hurst says she has already seen some positive outcomes with the treatment which uses a combination of FBT and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

“While the FBT will involve all members of the patient’s immediate family, the cognitive component of the treatment involves talking with the young person individually. This entails discussing the negative impact of perfectionism, whether this is related to selforientated perfectionistic behaviours or socially prescribed perfectionistic behaviours – which are high standards that others may be putting on them.

“So far, we have seen four adolescent patients complete the two rounds of treatment sessions which take place over the course of a year, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Returning to a healthy weight has been successful for these patients and we have also seen their relationship with food improve as well as a reduction
in the negative feelings associated with perfectionism.

“These results show us that recovery from anorexia is definitely possible with this type of treatment. With the whole family involved in therapy, as well as a young person having
the opportunity to talk through their issues individually, there is a real chance to put an end to the condition and prevent that ‘revolving door’ of patients who are left with
residual symptoms, coming back for further treatment.

“In adulthood anorexia is much more difficult to recover from, whereas if adolescents seek treatment early, recovery is possible.”