Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Resistance to treatment and change in anorexia nervosa: a clinical overview

Giovanni Abbate-Daga, Federico Amianto, Nadia Delsedime, Carlotta De-Bacco and Secondo Fassino*

Author Affiliations

Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research, Department of Neuroscience, University of Turin, Turin, Italy

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BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:294  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-294

Published: 7 November 2013



Current literature on Eating Disorders (EDs) is devoid of evidence-based findings providing support to effective treatments, mostly for anorexia nervosa (AN). This lack of successful guidelines may play a role in making these disorders even more resistant. In fact, many individuals do not respond to the available treatments and develop an enduring and disabling illness. With this overview we aimed to highlight and discuss treatment resistance in AN – with an in-depth investigation of resistance-related psychological factors.

A literature search was conducted on PubMed and PsychINFO; English-language articles published between 1990 and 2013 investigating the phenomenon of resistance to treatment in AN have been considered.


The selected papers have been then grouped into four main thematic areas: denial of illness; motivation to change; maintaining factors and treatment outcome; and therapeutic relationship. Eating symptomatology was found to only partially explain resistance to treatment. The role of duration of illness has been questioned whilst some maintaining factors seemed promising in providing a useful framework for this phenomenon. Emotive and relational aspects have been investigated on their role in resistance as well as therapists’ countertransference.


Remarkably there has been little research done on resistance to treatment in the ED field, in spite of its clinical relevance. Motivation, insight and subjective meaning of the illness can be useful tools to manage the resistance phenomenon when coupled with a wider approach. The latter enables the therapists to be aware of their role in the therapeutic alliance through countertransference aspects and to consider the EDs as disorders of the development of both personality and self, entailing severe impairments as regards identity and relationships.

Anorexia nervosa; Eating disorders; Psychodynamic psychotherapy; Resistance; Change; Insight; Therapeutic relationship; Maintaining factors; Defense mechanisms; Countertransference