Mindfulness and Eating Disorders
What if someone told you that you could drastically improve the symptoms of your eating disorder simply by learning to be more mindful of the world around you? Mindfulness plays an important role in eating disorder recovery, which you’ll learn more about by reading this blog post.
The act of being mindful helps us tune into the world around us, including sights, smells, tastes and other sensations (such as when we eat our food), and observe our emotions without judgment. Keep reading to find out how mindfulness can aid you in your recovery from an eating disorder, whether you suffer from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or something else entirely.
What is Mindfulness?
Before we talk about how mindfulness can help you in your recovery from an eating disorder, we have to first define what mindfulness actually is. According to Monte Nido, “Mindfulness is a state of awareness that allows people to truly gauge how they are feeling and what they are thinking.” Mindfulness lets us do this by tuning in to the world around us as well as ourselves, and simply observing without judgment.
Mindfulness is a skill that every human being already possesses, according to the magazine Mindful. However, it’s one that many of us aren’t using as often as we should. By practicing our mindfulness, we can hone this important skill that helps us cope with discomfort generated by things like mealtimes or other triggers in eating disorder recovery.
You can be mindful through proven practices, such as yoga or meditation, but also by incorporating mindfulness into the activities you do every day. For example, you can practice mindful eating to make mealtimes easier on yourself in eating disorder recovery by observing your emotions and experiencing the sensations of consuming your food.
How Mindfulness Can Help Eating Disorder Patients
More and more, researchers are learning how mindfulness practices can be applied to existing eating disorder treatments to help people recover faster. Current studies have been small, but scholars have concluded that the application of mindfulness to eating disorder treatment is promising and worthy of further research.
There is increasing evidence that mindfulness can be used to teach patients how to cope with urges to restrict caloric intake and participate in compensatory exercise. In one case study, a 19-year-old woman with a BMI of 17.9 who restricted her daily caloric intake to 900-1,000 calories per day and exercised one hour per day, every day was able to raise her BMI to 19.5 and increase her caloric intake to 1,500-2,000 calories per day through an introduction to the principles of mindful eating over 15 sessions with a therapist.
Another study found that mindfulness-based group treatment may be effective for patients suffering from bulimia nervosa. Participants described their transformation from emotional and behavioral extremes, disembodiment and self-loathing to greater self-awareness, acceptance and compassion, according to this study.
Mindfulness-based treatment may also be effective in treating patients with binge-eating disorder. In this study, Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) was used to decrease the frequency of binge eating episodes, increase awareness of hunger and satiety cues and cultivate feelings of self-acceptance in patients suffering from binge-eating disorder.
As you can see, mindfulness-based practices can be effective in a wide range of eating disorder patients in cultivating self-acceptance and compassion, while helping to decrease the frequency of eating disorder behaviors. In the next section, we’ll learn which mindfulness techniques have been most effective in eating disorder patients and how you can use them in your own eating disorder recovery at home.
Effective Mindfulness Techniques for Eating Disorder Recovery
Not all mindfulness techniques are created equal. So, which mindfulness techniques are most effective for eating disorder recovery in particular? Below, we talk about some of the most effective mindfulness techniques for patients suffering from eating disorders — and how you can try them on your own to augment your eating disorder recovery process.
One of the most effective and most widely studied mindfulness practices applied to eating disorder treatment is the act of eating mindfully. Mindful eating requires us to be present with our eating disorder thoughts without judgment and make the conscious choice to observe but not act on them.
Unfortunately, eating disorders create automated feedback loops in the brain that can make it difficult to consciously choose not to act on eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Weight restoration and structured meals are important components of eating disorder treatment that can make mindfulness training easier to implement in your eating disorder recovery.
Once the cycle of eating disorder behaviors is interrupted, we can welcome the opportunity to eat mindfully without judgment, consciously noticing our thoughts without choosing to act on them. Through eating mindfully, you can learn to observe your subconscious judgments and physical reactions to certain foods, absorbing information about your eating disorder triggers and making the conscious decision to interrupt the cycle further.
Mindful eating also notes the individuality of the eating experience, according to Today’s Dietician, recognizing that there is no right or wrong way to eat and that individuals can make conscious choices to support their own mindful eating journey in whatever way they see fit.
It’s important to acknowledge that mindful eating is not a diet, though some members of diet culture may try to spin it that way. Diet culture is designed to create stress around eating, while mindful eating does just the opposite: it allows us to recognize and feel our emotions surrounding food, without giving into harmful dieting behaviors.
Mindful eating promotes an awareness that allows us to resist the stress of conventional diet culture and instead look toward ourselves with greater compassion for our “slip-ups” when it comes to food and eating disorder recovery. Below is a three-step plan for implementing mindful eating in your life to aid you on your journey toward eating disorder recovery:
- Engage the senses. When is the last time you truly tasted or smelled the food you were about to eat?Instead of scarfing our food, mindful eating encourages us to savor every bite.
- Enjoy a meal without distractions. Turn off the TV and leave your phone behind when you sit down at the table to eat! By sitting down to eat uninterrupted by distractions, we refocus our attention on our senses, delighting in the sensations invited by our food. Plus, our minds are clearer to notice the judgmental thoughts that arise in our heads, allowing us to notice our eating disorder urges without acting on them.
- Reflect on your hunger levels. Eating disorders can put us out of touch with our bodies, leading us to forget what it feels like to be truly hungry or full. Before and after eating, mindful eating encourages you to notice how hungry or full you are using a hunger scale. Most importantly, remember that this meal is only one choice in your hunger journey. Show yourself compassion if you choose to eat more or less than you ought to during this meal.
Keeping a journal is a mindfulness practice that allows us to get in touch with our deeply-rooted emotions and beliefs that may be driving our eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. As identifying problematic thoughts is often a first step in eating disorder treatment, journaling goes hand-in-hand with the mindful treatment of eating disorders to help you identify the unhelpful thoughts behind eating disorder urges.
One of the best parts about keeping a journal is the ability to customize your journaling technique to your needs and your style. For example, you might try a bullet journal for tracking symptoms, hunger levels, triggering thoughts or eating disorder urges in a creative way. Or, you might want to keep an old-fashioned written journal where you participate in “thought dumps,” writing stream-of-consciousness style to rid your brain of any negative thoughts that may be affecting your behavior.
Journaling can help you better express your emotions in a way that can be easily understood by your brain, allowing you to process what you are going through and make sense of challenging thoughts and emotions during your treatment. Some journaling exercises you may want to try in eating disorder recovery include:
- Write a “goodbye letter” to your eating disorder. This letter can include things you liked and disliked about your eating disorder, the pros and cons of your eating disorder and the reasons why you choose recovery from your eating disorder.
- Write about your life without an eating disorder. What would your life look like if you no longer had an eating disorder? Vividly imagining your future life without an eating disorder can give you a clear goal to aspire to and work toward in recovery.
- Write down your eating disorder thoughts vs. the truth. Journaling provides you with a clear opportunity to reframe negative eating disorder thoughts in a more constructive and truthful way. After enough time of writing this way, you may find that your eating disorder thoughts become less and less automatic.
- Write about a relapse and how it could go differently next time. Relapses offer us opportunities to learn from our mistakes and do things better in the future. Writing about how you would act differently in the future gives you a framework to act on the next time you feel problematic thoughts and behaviors coming up in your mind.
Mindfulness of our body and mind is an important component of the ancient practice of yoga. Yoga is a form of gentle movement that syncs our mind, body and spirit, allowing us to foster a stronger connection between ourselves and our bodies.
The mind-body connection can be interrupted by eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, making yoga the perfect practice for reconnecting to your body during your eating disorder recovery. Just make sure that you get the okay from your treatment team before taking part in any form of physical exercise!
Many studies affirm the benefits of yoga for eating disorder patients. For example, adolescents in eating disorder treatment who participated in yoga showed greater decreases in eating disorder symptoms than those who did not. Another study showed that mindful eating combined with yoga reduced binge eating episodes among outpatient females suffering from binge-eating disorder.
Yoga provides patients with many tools essential to eating disorder recovery such as being present, using breathwork to calm the nervous system and tolerating unpleasant emotions and sensations. However, yoga may not be appropriate for every eating disorder patient, especially if you have a history of excessive or compensatory exercise.
Yoga can easily be customized to your needs and style. For example, it can be performed in a group of other eating disorder patients or in the privacy of your home. YouTube offers many free channels that have gentle yoga videos that are appropriate for eating disorder patients. Again, simply make sure you get the okay from your treatment team before beginning any kind of movement program for your eating disorder.
Support for Mindfulness in Eating Disorder Recovery
Mindfulness can be a challenging skill to learn on your own. Here at The Meadowglade, our trained professionals can teach you mindfulness skills as part of one of our outpatient programs for eating disorders, offering you welcome guidance as you progress along your mindfulness and eating disorder recovery journeys.