Group counseling gives students the opportunity to receive support from professionals and fellow students while also discussing a wide range of issues that students might encounter while at the University. Current groups include Cupcakes and Connections for first-generation college students, a group revolving around Family Dynamics, and the Race, Culture, & Identity Post-Election Support.
This week, Street interviewed Dr. Kerri Danskin, who — along with her colleague Krista Kalkreuth — facilitates the counseling group on Managing Eating and Emotions. On the University Health Services website, the group describes its mission as helping students “manage unstable and unpredictable emotions that underlie eating and body-image issues.”
The Daily Princetonian: First of all, why did you decide that the University needed a counseling group for Managing Eating and Emotions?
Dr. Kerri Danskin: Like any population of significant size, Princeton students struggle with concerns about eating and body image. The group is part of our multidisciplinary treatment team for eating concerns at University Health Services, which includes medical staff, a registered dietician, athletic training staff, and Counseling and Psychological Services counselors. It is part of the UHS commitment to providing comprehensive health care for students.
DP: Are there any specific issues related to eating and emotions that seem to be prevalent patterns on our campus?
KD: It is not possible for us to speak specifically about patterns related to eating disorders on campus because the work that we do with students is confidential. However, generally speaking, Princeton students experience additional challenges around eating because of the intense nature of their academic work and the timing involved in that work. Often students work late into the night and become concerned about their patterns of eating during those times — what they eat, when they eat it, whether it is enough or too much. The rigorous nature of both academic and athletic pursuits at Princeton necessitates adequate fueling and sometimes students — whether they have specific concerns about eating or not — struggle to do that.
DP: What kinds of emotions affect eating and body-image issues that Princeton students have?
KD: We work from the understanding that disordered eating behaviors are often a reflection of a person’s difficulty regulating their emotions. Different people struggle with different emotions. Anxiety, anger, and sadness are often prominent, but there are certainly also people who struggle to regulate positive emotions too and find that it impacts their eating.
For people who have difficulty with body image, there is often self-criticism taking place and that can have a significant impact on emotions and mood. It can be helpful to draw attention to those criticisms, challenge them, and learn to mindfully tolerate and process the emotions that accompany them. We sometimes refer to this self-criticism and the accompanying behavioral impulses as the “eating disorder voice,” and we help students to separate it from their “healthy voice” that is working toward recovery.
DP: How do you help students develop skills to manage these emotions?
KD: Our group combines skills training, support, and therapeutic interpersonal interactions to help students in their recovery. The skills we impart are largely drawn from dialectical behavior therapy, so they include units on mindfulness and meditation, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. We teach the skills in the group and the group members talk about how they are using or struggling with the skills and help each other develop ideas about how to better incorporate them into their recovery. They are remarkably supportive of each other and many report that the experience of being in the group together makes them feel less alone.
DP: Why do you think that group counseling is a compelling way to help students with these issues?
KD: Group therapy in general is an effective treatment for many different psychological issues and can be particularly so for individuals who experience shame or feel alone in their struggles, which can sometimes be the case for people with eating and body image concerns.
DP: How would you describe the atmosphere of this group?
KD: The atmosphere of the group can vary week to week depending on what is being discussed, but what is very consistent is the strong support that the students provide for each other.
DP: Are there any reasons you can think of why students might decide not to come, even if they could benefit from the group?
KD: People who struggle with disordered eating are sometimes hesitant to begin treatment due to fears about how recovery might impact their bodies. That uncertainty can return at various points in recovery and result in less regular attendance at treatment appointments. This is something we anticipate and we help students navigate those feelings when they arise.
DP: Is there anything else students should know?
KD: The most important thing to note about this group is that it is strictly confidential, as is all treatment at CPS.