How Meditation Works for Eating Disorders
"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Eating disorder create a lot of “noise” in the brain as they progressively take over control of the parts of the brain that relate to thoughts and emotion within the sufferer.
Indeed, eating disorders seem very effective at evoking thoughts and reactions that would not be those the sufferer would choose themselves. A fear reaction to eating food, for example, is not a normal response, and is therefore a response generated by the eating disorder.
At it’s base, meditation is thought control. While the body is still, the practitioner concentrates fully on what is happening in the mind. A large part of this initially is self awareness.
Self Awareness for Eating Disorders
Mediation allows you to become aware of your thoughts without acting on them. You practice becoming aware of a thought or emotion without being “caught up” in that thought or emotion. In a way, you are a bystander, observing what is happening in your brain with interest — like an observational scientist might do.
As you become more practiced at this, you can watch your thoughts come and go without getting caught up in them. Meditation teaches us that thoughts are just thoughts and that we don’t have to do as they say or feel as they dictate that we should do.
For example, if you feel fear at the sight of a slice of pizza, a meditation practice would hone your skills of thought distancing to the point where you would be able to recognise that you feel fear, but not actually allow yourself to get caught up in fear. In other words, you could think to yourself: “Okay, I feel fear, that’s interesting … hmm, should I be afraid? Probably not …. I chose to not be scared.”
With meditation we observe thoughts and emotions. We acknowledge them, and we make a choice about if we want to continue to feel them, or if we would prefer to discard them.
Regaining Control of Emotional Responses
The picture of a person meditating is alway one of calm. There is a reason for this. Once a person can identify an emotion that is brewing up and choose to discard it before it hits them in full force, they can choose to stay calm — even in really scary situations.
In a way, when you become practiced at this sort of mind control, you can recognise an emotion such as fear, or anger, and you can evaluate your situation. If you decide that the brewing emotion is not going to help you in your current situation, you can dismiss it. This is not only great if you need to be able to control stress and anger at work so that you don’t yell at your boss. It is a wonderful way to control fear, anxiety, and stress at mealtimes if you have an eating disorder.
Meditation in Eating Disorder Recovery
Meditation is a key tool in eating disorder recovery. It will allow you to recognise the anxiety and fear around food and choose not to participate in those emotions. Effectively, this takes the control away from the eating disorder and gives it back to you.
There hundreds of different ways to practice meditation. Many people get put off because they think it requires them to sit for hours and hours and think of nothing. Sure, that is one sort of meditation, but not the only sort.
In fact, the best meditation for eating disorders is often the short, multiple times a day check in because you can start to bring this into mealtimes.
A Meditation to start with:
- Sit comfortably. You can lie if you prefer. You don’t have to sit cross legged, you can sit however you like.
- Turn off your phone — we do this to stop noise distractions.
- Close your eyes — we do this to block out visual distractions.
- Inhale as slowly as you can. Count the seconds it takes you to breath in.
- Hold your breath for the same number of seconds it took you to breathe in.
- Exhale for the same number of seconds that it took you to inhale.
- Repeat five times — each time try and make the inhale last longer, and therefore the whole sequence last longer.
- At the end of the fifth exhale, breathe normally again,
- Do a body scan starting from your toes and trace your mind up your legs, trunk, upper body, and finish at the top of your head. Check in with each part of your body and concentrate on how these individual parts feel as you go. This is not easy to do to begin with, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t really feel anything.
Sit with your eyes closed after that for as long as you like. This could be 2 seconds, it could be 2 hours. There is no right or wrong amount of time to meditate.
Pro tip: Don’t expect to “enjoy” meditation. I have been practicing for years and I still cannot say I “enjoy” it. What I do enjoy, is the mind control it allows me. I can chose whether to engage in an emotional reaction I am having. I can chose not to feel stressed if I think that feeling stressed is not going to be productive. That is what I enjoy.
Mediation for me is a means to an ends. It’s like studying for a test, or learning a new skill. I don’t meditate for the sake of being good at meditating, I meditate because I want to be good at controlling my levels of stress and anxiety.
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Carmody, J. (2009). Evolving conceptions of mindfulness in clinical settings. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 23(3), 270-280
Corstorphine, E. (2006). Cognitive-emotional-behavioural therapy for the eating disorders: Working with beliefs about emotions. European Eating Disorders Review, 14, 448-461. doi: 10.1002/erv.747
Hamilton, N. A., Kitzman, H., & Guyotte, S. (2006). Enhancing health and emotion: Mindfulness as a missing link between cognitive therapy and positive psychology. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 20(2), 123-134.
This article was written for AEDRA for Tabitha Farrar.
You can find out more at her blog: tabithafarrar.com