Anorexia nervosa (AN) is characterized by its similarity to anxiety disorders, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Family-based treatment (FBT) has shown promising initial results for treatment of AN in adolescents, yet the precise mechanisms of action are unknown. We present a theoretical argument and model, suggesting that FBT may work via exposure (and habituation) to food and its consumption. First, we review the evidence for pathological anxiety in AN, and suggest a framework for identifying specific anxious triggers, emotions (fear and worry) and avoidance strategies. Second, we briefly review evidence indicating that cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and specifically exposure in its various forms is most effective for treating anxiety disorders in youth. Third, we consider distinct approaches to exposure therapy based on the pattern of triggers, anxious emotions and avoidance. We conclude that the interventions utilized in FBT share clear similarities to exposure with response prevention, a type of exposure therapy commonly used with OCD, and may work via facilitating habituation to food and eating in one's natural environment. We also highlight how parents facilitate this process in between sessions by effectively coaching their children and facilitating naturalistic exposure to food and related triggers. Options for future research are considered.
Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Eating Disorders Association.