Overview - How We Are Different
The Avalon Hills Eating Disorder Programs treats and assists adolescent females and adult women in overcoming the full range of eating disorders. We know that Eating Disorders can also occur alongside other issues, and we treat those too, including past trauma, if that has been a part of a person’s history. The Avalon Hills approach is client-driven, based on each individual’s needs.
From its inception in 2003, Avalon Hills has offered paths to recovery through providing new information, the development of new insights, and by providing new experiences that facilitate psychological growth. We help our clients develop new ways of thriving in their lives through a combination of the best, tried-and-true traditional psychotherapies and applied neuroscience, including the latest discoveries about human brain plasticity (described below).
While there are many components to treatment at Avalon Hills (see Treatment Components), we wish to emphasize a few aspects that distinguish our approach.
Clients at Avalon Hills will receive one of the most in-depth psychotherapeutic assessments available in the world. So many therapies today focus primarily on Eating Disorder symptoms. These are obviously very important. But Eating Disorders symptoms, while dangerous, are not the heart of the illness. They are attempts to deal with underlying problems, which may have gone undetected. Our assessments take more time, and go deeper, but save time in the long run.
One of the main approaches we use is in-depth, individualized psychotherapy, to help get to the bottom of the problem. The therapies we use make use of the best insights of traditional psychotherapy, and the latest discoveries about the brain, and how to change brain patterns.
Each client has a primary therapist whose main job is to help her understand the underlying factors that caused her to turn to Eating Disorder behaviors, and then to address them directly. Once that happens, clients can begin to grow out of the need to restrict, binge or over-exercise. We also help clients to understand the competing forces in their minds, and help them to examine their defense mechanisms, to see which are working for them, and which are blocking healthy growth. This approach is called a “psychodynamic” approach, and it is one of our key therapies. We know that a client won’t leave Eating Disorder behaviors behind if we can’t give her something better, and help her grow and develop into the person she was meant to be.
And just as we believe in ongoing growth for our clients, we never stop our own growth, and have one of the most intensive continuing education programs in the country, with international experts, so that our staff is always as up to date as possible. At Avalon Hills we don’t buy the idea that being at the top of our game ever means that “our learning days are over.”
Working with Dr. Ed Hamlin, one of the world leaders in neurofeedback, Avalon Hills has pioneered the use of this treatment to help clients with Eating Disorders. It’s completely non-invasive, and involves tailor-made brain exercises to help people process negative emotions, and have more access to positive emotional experience and peace of mind.
For instance, many of our clients, are often very anxious, and at times obsessive, compulsive, perfectionistic and highly self-critical. The tendency to be perfectionistic is often driven by anxiety and a temperamental tendency to be hyper-conscientious—conscientious to a fault. We are also pioneers in using a non-invasive brain scan, called a Quantitative EEG (qEEG) to help clients see how their brains are operating when they are over-anxious, obsessive or compulsive, and then tailoring an individualized program for her to change that. We have the largest library of these scans for Eating Disorder patients in the world, and we are learning from them.
We can show a client the area of her brain that is active when she is anxious and upset, for instance, and teach her how to use neurofeedback to turn down that anxiety or other unwanted tendencies, if she wishes. We can help her do the same with her recurring negative thoughts and self-criticisms. In individual, group and other mind-based therapies, she will learn what triggers her anxiety and Eating Disorder behaviors. Her brain training will teach her to “shift gears” from that anxiety to a calm focus, using her mind’s ability to change brain activity. Few people know that this is possible, but it’s possible to do so using neurofeedback.
Each client’s neurofeedback program is individualized. Because neurofeedback gives clients precise measures of where they are, and precise measures of what to aim for, perfectionistic people often like the idea of training for an incremental improvement that is under their control. Instead of trying to get people to drop their perfectionism outright, we help them learn to use it in healthy ways.
The result is that our clients feel more peace of mind, and can better think through problems without feeling the need to resort to Eating Disorder behaviors. They feel less tension, urgency, less of a need to react to distress with eating behaviors. Less anxious, they can be more reflective, put more of their feelings into words, and become more empathic with themselves and others. This helps their individual psychotherapy go deeper, and work better.
Because we do an individualized brain-based assessment we can also see if there are potential capacities a client has that they don’t know about. Our scans can show brain areas that are under or over stimulated in her everyday life. We can teach her to activate some of those areas and improve her cognitive capacities, and her ability to feel in control. Clients find looking at the scans very helpful. And, we can also show our clients the effects that starvation has on the brain, which can motivate them to protect their most precious organ.
One of the main ideas that underlines Avalon Hills treatment program is the recent discovery that the human brain is plastic, meaning that the brain structure is actually changeable and adaptable. So many people believe that they are stuck with the problems they have because that’s “just the way their brains work.”
The idea of brain “plasticity” is very important at Avalon. It is a fairly recent discovery, and one of the most hopeful in decades.
The human brain is not, as it was long thought, like a “hardwired” electric machine that can’t be changed. Rather, it is “neuroplastic” and can grow and change in response to mental activity experience, and even interpersonal interactions. Even our most rigid behaviors are a product of the brain’s plasticity. Repeat a behavior over and over, and it will become stronger in the brain—because the brain is plastic in everyone. If this plasticity is understood, a client can use her mind to develop her brain in healthy ways. Whether it is through her individual psychotherapy, family therapy, neurofeedback, mindfulness, body image work, group therapy animal therapy, or participating in our milieu, we are always working to help our residents understand that they can change in deep ways of their own choosing.