Reading Memoirs as Part of Therapy: Helpful or Not?

Timing was the key in one Australian study.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
January/February Volume 27, Number 1
©2016 iaedp

The use of memoirs of individuals struggling to overcome an eating disorder as part of therapy has both fans and opponents. Does the shared information, including negative aspects of the disorders, help or harm an individual’s efforts to recover? In one early study, 75% of anorexia nervosa (AN) patients mentioned feeling hopeless, and felt that life without their AN might be impossible (Commun Monogr. 1992. 59:330-338). In another study, patients with bulimia nervosa (BN) were most likely to seek treatment after receiving messages emphasizing both the health consequences and the effectiveness of treatment (J Behav Med. 2000. 23:37).

The positive effect was greater during recovery

Correct timing makes all the difference in the use of memoirs as part of eating disorders therapy, according to two psychologists at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia (J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015. 203:591).

The researchers conducted their study using an anonymous online questionnaire. Participants were recruited through an ad on a web page of a Sydney-based ED organization. The 24 women were between 16 and 47 years of age; 11 had AN only, 5 had BN only, and 8 had multiple ED diagnoses. Participants were asked a series of questions about the effect of reading eating disorders memoirs, including the influence the memoirs had upon their own course of the disorder.

The authors found that as individuals described being more motivated to recover and moved toward recovery, their focus shifted away from the food or weight aspects of the memoir, and they more closely emulated the protagonist’s recovery journey. This contrasted with individuals exposed to memoirs before, or during their illness, who experiencing negative consequences that included emulating and triggering disordered behaviors.

The results of this qualitative study emphasize that reading memoirs may be deleterious prior to entering active recovery, but useful as recovery progresses.

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