Degree Date

5-2017

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Social Work and Social Research

Abstract

This research investigated the connection between attachment, affect regulation, eating disorders and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), a connection that has not previously been examined. The conceptual lenses for this research identified eating disorders as one of many possible examples of difficulties in regulatory functioning and attachment. The connection between attachment and affect regulation, combined with the literature on eating disorders that identifies affect dysregulation as a primary factor in the etiology of eating disorders, provided the conceptual grounding for the research. This exploratory study, through intensive interviews, examined 20 adult women’s experience of AAT among women who used AAT in their eating disorder treatment. The results of this exploratory study suggest that the symptoms of ED may have a relational functionality for the individual, even if there are other developmental, cognitive, and physical costs associated with these same symptoms. Through the lens of attachment theory, eating disorders can be seen as having an “attachment function”; a way to maintain connection even if it is an inauthentic interpersonal connection. Then, the eating disorder is an imperfect, or partial solution for the individual who both desires connection but cannot tolerate being “known” authentically for fear of rejection. Therefore, AAT may provide, either within individual or group modalities, potentially reparative experiences that help foster a strong link between affect and body experiences for women struggling with eating disorders. The results of this study may have clinical and treatment implications for eating disorders. In particular, eating disorder treatment may benefit from thinking about the individuals’ attachment representations, and the development of creative, sensory engaging, and restorative interventions as an adjunct to other therapies.

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