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Can Relaxation Help Patients With Anorexia Nervosa?

For patients with anorexia nervosa [AN], the idea of regaining weight can be terrifying. In a small study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders (2008; 41, 728-33), researchers from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to determine whether relaxation therapy might help. They chose to compare the effectiveness of three relaxation strategies—progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery and self-directed relaxation—to see whether any of them could reduce stress and anxiety levels associated with weight gain, feelings of fullness and thoughts about weight.

Scientists enrolled 64 female patients (aged 11-59) from the university’s Eating Disorders Program; all were diagnosed with restricting, purging and/or binging types of AN. Each subject participated in the study for 15 days and on each day completed a rating form immediately after lunch, describing her anxiety levels, feelings of relaxation, intensity of thoughts and feelings of fullness. Then all patients in the Eating Disorders Program (whether subjects or not) participated in progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, self-directed relaxation or a control session that consisted of self-selected activity under observation on a rotating weekly schedule. After the treatment, subjects completed a post-treatment rating form.

Investigators found that the three active relaxation conditions significantly reduced anxiety and increased relaxation among the participants. What’s more, they enjoyed the activities and stated that they would recommend them to a friend. Since promoting feelings of relaxation is so essential in helping AN patients achieve a healthy weight, the authors of this study stated the importance of developing, enhancing and revising AN treatment approaches to include relaxation techniques.

The study’s limitations included its short duration and the fact that it was not a randomized, controlled trial. More research was recommended.

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