Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.

Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date.

Quality of life is intimately associated with leisure experience and opportunities for self-development and self-expression. Play, recreation, and leisure experiences are an important aspect of the quality of human existence. If we are to affirm our humanness and enjoy genuine happiness, we must play. True quality of life is not found simply in improved functioning, but in the discovery of our humanity through experiences of joyful freedom that bring meaning and value to life. The purpose of recreation therapy is to facilitate the development, expression, and maintenance of a healthy leisure lifestyle.

Women and men who suffer with eating disorders have physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual limitations which prevent the quality of life inherent in a healthy leisure lifestyle. Upon admission to the inpatient program at Center for Change, an experiential and recreation therapies assessment is completed for each patient During the assessment, the patient describes how the disorder has affected her leisure lifestyle. She identifies active and creative leisure interests; perceptions of personal strengths, as well as areas that need improvement; career ideas; feelings about spirituality; and desires for treatment outcomes. It becomes apparent that the obsessive/compulsive cycle of the eating disorder becomes an obstacle to leisure, a desperate attempt at relieving stress, fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, loneliness, insecurity, emptiness, and emotional pain. The eating disorder behavior gives a temporary false sense of euphoria and control — a counterfeit transcendence. This is followed by increased guilt, shame, disgust, discouragement, and spinning out of control. The eating disorder sufferer becomes hostage to the dark self-destructive power of the illness.

When asked in the assessment interview, “What do your active and creative leisure interests do for you?” patients have given the following responses:

Stress release, takes away frustrations; Gets me back to myself; Feel better about myself, sense of accomplishment; Express emotions; Have fun, get away from routine; Challenge, perspective; Relaxation, express my individuality; Adrenalin rush; I feel happy and calm; Capture nature and share the excitement of dance; Uplifting, motivating; It’s me, it’s my creative, happy self; Feel alive; Reminds me of my talents and abilities; Gets my mind off things; Peaceful; Freedom, communication, invigorating, outdoors; Time for myself; Confidence, forget painful emotions; Peace of mind.

When asked,”How does your eating disorder affect your leisure interests and lifestyle?” responses have included:

I don’t have fun anymore; Less energy; Lost desire and enjoyment; I gave up the things I like to do to have time to purge; It ruins my singing voice; I passed out, lost interest; When I binge, I don’t want to do anything else; I’m always fatigued; No more joy, stopped doing anything else; I cancelled dates and socializing; Lost concentration. Had to stop playing sports; It numbs me. No emotions; The eating disorder destroyed my life; I love water sports and I’m too scared to wear a swimsuit; Nothing is fun anymore, I’m grouchy, apathetic; I’m too cold. I isolate; It kills my creative energy.

Experiential recreation therapy interventions are designed to break the addictive cycle and facilitate self-awareness and self-expression. Experiential therapy differs from traditional psychotherapy in that an “experience” is planned which can provide a learning “body experience.” Concepts such as pushing past the fear, teamwork, communication, assertiveness, leadership, confidence, and self-compassion are in focus through activities which create an experience of these in the moment.  Experiential therapies help take the patient past “talking” and into “doing”.

Acceptance of self and others, relying on higher power, and trust can be experienced with the whole self (body, mind, and spirit). The Ropes Challenge Course provides an experience where residents and their family members can overcome physical challenges which then relate back to emotional challenges. A patient could spend weeks talking about the concept of trust and not really understand it until it becomes a personal body, mind, and spirit experience. Recreational and Experiential therapists are trained to help process planned experiences, facilitating an in-depth examination of beliefs, thought processes, emotions, and behavior patterns, helping patients experience how learning from experience can create positive changes. Patients move out of their “comfort” zone and into their “courage” zone.

The Center’s Leisure Education Services are based on the assumption that behavior can change and improve as the patient acquires new leisure abilities, knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Leisure activities are planned as a means of learning healthy coping skills. Active involvement in social outings and creative leisure skills can provide new resources and promote development of inherent talents. Service projects are planned as a means of reaching out to others and discovering the joy of helping others. Patients become more acquainted with what they have to offer as they give meaningful service to others. As patients become more focused on their strengths, gifts, and talents they become empowered. Perceptions shift toward perceived freedom, competency, problem-solving abilities, conflict resolution, successful experiences, and internal motivation. Life as an adult woman begins to be viewed as exciting rather than as terrifying. Eventually, patients can honestly believe “I can be a responsible adult who has choices and options; life is an adventure; it’s never too late for a happy childhood.”

Patients are encouraged to increasingly take responsibility for their leisure mental health and well being.  True leisure is only possible if a person is at peace with self. They may begin to realize what it means to be truly human, truly alive. As the recovering patient chooses life over death, chooses hope over despair, chooses health over illness, chooses light over darkness, she begins to be “re-created.” A healthy sense of self and a clear and accurate appreciation of who he or she is as a unique individual is critical to the experience of healing. Healing leisure experiences promote a sense of connectedness to a greater whole (environment and community). Recreation therapy addresses the total needs of the woman suffering with an eating disorder, and those needs can find fulfillment through leisure experiences. Recreation therapy can bring women a sense of joy, laughter, belonging, and a renewed sense of wholeness.

Written by:  Kathleen Slade Hofer, MS, TRS and Alta Swarnes, CTRS
Revised September 2014