Self Change in Eating Disorders: Is “Spontaneous Recovery” Possible?

Self-Change in Eating Disorders:
Is “Spontaneous Recovery” Possible?

Department of Psychology, Catholic University Leuven, Tienen, Belgium

A limited series of community studies including non-treatment- seekers has shown that a considerable number of eating disorder patients do not enter the health care system but can be considered “clinically recovered” (remission of major symptoms) if followed up long enough. The possibility of “spontaneous recovery” (overcom- ing an eating disorder without professional treatment or formal help) often faces scepticism on the part of professionals. Clearly, self-change is an underestimated pathway to recovery from an eat- ing disorder, but open-minded clinicians can learn a lot from it. Active coping and making use of one’s “recovery capital” are key features of self-change even if maintenance of change is associated with social support and positive life changes.

In the field of addictions or substance use problems, much has been writ- ten about “spontaneous recovery,” i.e., the phenomenon of overcoming an unwanted condition without professional treatment or formal help, and “self- change” has been proposed as a neutral description (Sobell, 2007). Just like placebos or non-specific  treatment factors, seriously  considering  the pos- sibility of self-change might jeopardize a therapist’s identity or undermine his/her  territory in health care. Apart from this personal threat, there are other explanations for why self-change as an area of study has been so long overlooked or ignored. Referring to addictions, Sobell (2007) mentions three reasons which also apply to the field of eating disorders:

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