By Vanessa Pawlowski
Group leader of Susan B. Krevoy Eating Disorders Program
Group therapy creates a different experience from individual therapy, as the group itself attains responsibility for the treatment. Members learn to depend on one another to show up for meetings consistently, and to participate actively and honestly. In groups facing the challenges of eating disorders, members begin to discuss how to overcome their very individual struggles with food, together. What changes do they wish to see? Where do they wish to go, and how do they talk about getting there? Group therapy is essential in the treatment of patients with eating disorders, as the group setting allows members to learn to depend on others in a healthy way and deal with feelings of neediness.
Because the group alone is never enough, this allows members to learn to handle feelings of wanting more as they begin discovering how to manage their eating habits successfully.
Group therapy also creates unique challenges. For instance, some members might feel less comfortable in a group than they do in one-on-one therapy sessions. Each member can benefit from examining various issues, such as why it might be difficult for them to come to group some sessions, or what particular topics are hard for them to bring up in the group. Because a group is by its very nature a mixture of individuals, different members might be at different levels in the group at any given time in regards to how much they are in control of their eating disorders, how they handle stress, etc. At times, group members may even remind each other of significant others. The group setting provides a safe environment in which to explore the feelings that arise regarding these differences, as well as inevitable similarities. As such, one task of the group is to learn to understand difficult feelings that may act as triggers for eating disorder behaviors.
Group therapy can also help members more effectively navigate emotions relating to loss and general life transitions. The group is temporary; all members will eventually leave our eating disorder program. With people coming and going in the group, members have the opportunity to directly explore the feelings that arise in these situations. Members are also able to see firsthand how they form relationships: How do I enter a group? How do I leave a group? By understanding these patterns of forming connections and leaving relationships, group members will develop tools to better handle transition and loss, and will ultimately learn how not to depend on food in response to difficult feelings.