Emerging Scholars: Rethinking Recovery

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Sara MossI’ve thought a lot about what to share in my final blog post because there is SO much I want to say. I’ve decided to present a short recap of my project, share my main findings, and talk about what comes next for my research (and for me).

Let me start with the recap! This year, I conducted qualitative interviews with 10 women who had recovered from eating disorders (EDs) to learn about their illness and recovery experiences, focusing both on how they choose to define ED recovery and explore ways they have grown through the recovery process.

I was attempting to pioneer application of a construct called Posttraumatic Growth (PTG)—transformative, psychological growth occurring in the aftermath of a highly stressful life event—to ED recovery.

After countless hours of interviews, transcriptions, and tedious analysis, the results of my study took growthform! Analysis revealed that the women in my study did indeed experience PTG, which was represented by three themes: A New Relationship to the Self, A New View of Life, and Interpersonal Growth. To really understand why each theme is indicative of PTG, it is important to understand participants’ pre-ED and illness experiences. However, sharing this information is not possible in the space allotted here. Instead, I have included a short, general summary of the three major themes below. PLEASE let me know if you are interested in learning more. I have a 70-page thesis I would be happy to share! :-)

Theme 1: A New Relationship to the Self
Participants described that through the recovery process, they were forced to figure out who they are, how they feel, what they like, and what they believe. They described simultaneously valuing their positive attributes and accepting those that are less desirable. The newfound ability to know themselves and advocate for their needs was indicative of an overall self worth. They described an appreciation for their bodies and minds, and expressed confidence in their ability to survive future challenges.

Theme 2: A New View of Life
This theme represents the ways in which the experience of recovery gave birth to an ability to manage highly stressful situations, in addition to new directions for the future (new jobs, passions, goals), new priorities, and new perspectives and insights.

Theme 3: Interpersonal Growth
Participants’ described the ways in which recovery led to the strengthening of specific relationships (with friends or family members) and in terms of greater authenticity and openness across relationships in general. Having seen the significance of the patience and kindness shown by providers, friends, and family members, these women were especially aware of others’ struggles and felt a strong desire to be supportive of others.

Okay, that was a lot of text, so let me give you a couple of take-away messages here:

brainMy overall conclusion: The results of my study provided powerful evidence of PTG
among a sample of women who have recovered from EDs and suggests the possibility that PTG may be highly related to the experience and process of ED recovery.

Why is this important? These findings challenge the prevailing conceptualization of EDs as destructive, life-long battles for which there is little hope of full recovery. The message that full recovery is possible, regardless of the length or complexity of the illness, has the potential to encourage and motivate people who are currently struggling. The potential impact of this message is especially powerful given the message of hopelessness that currently pervades the ED community.

Significantly, many of the study participants noted that having a platform to share their journeys, their insights, and their experiences was itself empowering. As one participant stated,“I’m honored to be a part of it [the study]. I think, you know, if you have to struggle with something, it’s nice to know that some good stuff might come out of it.” Therefore, it seems that involving individuals who have recovered from EDs in future treatment and research efforts has the potential to inspire sufferers and empower survivors, while simultaneously providing valuable information to researchers and providers.

And that brings me to the final portion of this post: Where am I going next?

In just a few short weeks, I am heading off to London, England to work with the international research team at the Eating Disorders Section of the King’s College Institute of Psychiatry! I could not be more excited! In addition to collaborating on their existing projects, I am extremely eager to get feedback on my own research and begin preparing manuscripts for publication. I hope to develop a quantitative instrument to assess PTG through ED recovery and to test a model I have developed from my data. There are so many directions I am eager to take this research and my newfound passion for exploring ED recovery!

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And as I wrap up this rather long post, I want to give shout outs to some of the many people and organizations who made this research possible. A HUGE thank you to…
Active Minds and the Scattergood Foundation, for funding my project, helping me to feel like it has the potential to make a difference, and for introducing me to a network of peers and professionals excited about research and ready to help me make my mark.
…the other Emerging Scholars fellows for their moral support, excellent feedback, and inspiration.
…to Dr. Webb, my Emerging Scholar’s mentor, who answered many late night emails, provided essential information and guidance, and gave me incredible feedback every step of the way.
…to Professor Suman Ambwani, my Dickinson research advisor and one of my biggest role models, for everything she has taught me over the past four years and for the ways she has pushed me to become a better researcher.
…to my AMAZING participants for sharing their stories and infinite wisdom. They are the heart and soul of this project and inspired me in countless ways. Whenever I felt defeated or frustrated, I listened to a portion of an interview and was reminded why this research matters.

This is not the end. In fact, it is only just the beginning! I hope to find a way to continue this research in graduate school and beyond. But for now, I must bid you all farewell and thank you for tuning in. I’d love to hear any questions, comments, or ideas, so never hesitate to reach out. :-)