Over the last 30 years, mindfulness has gained considerable acknowledgement in the practice of psychology and is an integral component of various theoretical approaches to psychotherapy. Research studies have demonstrated the positive effects of the practice of mindfulness on reducing and managing symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns (Bishop et al., 2004).
What is Mindfulness?
The practice of mindfulness emanates from Buddhist traditions as an approach in alleviating personal suffering (Silananda, 1990; Thera, 1962). While some hear the term “mindfulness” and may assume an emphasis on meditation, prayer, spirituality, religion, or altered states of consciousness, the practice of mindfulness is actually a very natural, but often missed, part of the human experience. Mindfulness describes a process of bringing awareness and attention to one’s here-and-now experience (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). While one way to cultivate mindfulness can be through meditation, modern psychology has also incorporated mindfulness strategies of increasing one’s awareness of their present experience as a way to manage cognitive, emotional, and behavioral distress. The two main features of mindfulness include the self-regulating of one’s attention towards the immediate present moment, and fostering of a curious, open, and accepting attitude towards this experience of the present (Bishop, 2014).
Shapiro and colleagues also proposed a Model of Mindful Practice with three components (2006):
Intention – the willingness to undertake the practice of mindfulness
Attention – sustained, nonreactive observation of one’s immediate present-moment experience (both internal and external)
Attitude – attending to these experiences with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love
How Can Mindfulness Help in Eating Disorder Recovery?
Eating disorders involve a multitude of internal and external processes – obsessive thoughts, dysregulated emotions, and compulsive behaviors – that can make the individual suffering feel overwhelmed. When your mind is spinning, your emotions are intense, and your behaviors feel out of control, how on earth can you manage all of these at once? Mindfulness plays the role of mental training to help the individual bring awareness, attention, and observation to their experience without becoming consumed by it and having to resort to maladaptive behaviors with food and body image. Instead, the individual witnesses their experience with an open mind and heart. Below are two examples on how mindfulness practices can help individuals struggling with an eating disorder:
Relief from Body Image Distress
Thoughts regarding body image can feel obsessive and all-consuming for someone with an eating disorder (i.e. “I need to lose weight to be happy” or “I need to be heavy to protect myself from harm.”) These thoughts can trigger eating disorder behaviors, including restricting, binging, purging, or other compensatory behaviors. Internal feelings may also contribute to poor body image (feeling emotionally heavy, physically violated, anxious, etc.). These cognitions and feelings can feel so intense and overwhelming that it may seem that succumbing to eating disorder behaviors is the only way to get relief. Fortunately, one approach to enduring these challenging experiences is through mindfulness. Mindfulness practices can help you witness, rather than submit, to these experiences.
For instance, let’s say you have the following thought: “I hate my body.”
One way to bring intentional awareness to this thought is to act like an objective observer of it: “I am having a thought/experience of hating my body.” This way, you are simply witnessing your experience. You can also shift your attention to what having this thought might feel like – “I feel sad when I have this thought.”
The next step of mindfulness would be to allow your observation and experience – don’t try to push away this thought, repress it, or act on an impulse to use a behavior. Instead, practice witnessing the thought in a nonjudgmental matter, as if, in a sense, it does not really have any meaning or value. Accept that it’s there, and if you’re ready, feel free to let it go (you can visualize the thought being swept away by the wind or some other imagery). If you’re not ready to let go, try to treat the thought/experience with love, gentleness, and curiosity instead of judging yourself for having it. The point of this exercise is to observe the thought from a distance instead of becoming wrapped up in its meaning, implications, or instructions.
By incorporating mindfulness during a meal or snack, you are training yourself to remain present to the experience and sensations of eating, while resisting attempts to judge or criticize yourself, the food, or the experience. Being truly present during the act of eating can help you attuned to any thoughts and feelings that surface during this process (i.e. “I need to eat more to comfort myself” or “I feel so shameful for having eaten this snack.”)
Here are some tips for eating mindfully:
Eliminate distractions. Removing any possible distractions before your meal/snack can help you better attend to the eating process and experience. For example, turn off the TV or put your phone away to involve all of your focus and senses in the meal.
Involve all of your senses. Try to use every sensation to fully experience the meal or snack. For example, imagine that you were just given a wrapped granola bar and want to eat it. Take a few moments to use each one of your five senses (sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste) to conscientiously experience eating the bar (from the moment you start to open the wrapper to when you swallow the last piece of granola). Try to stay in these sensations, rather than in your head.
After eating, check in with yourself. How do you feel? Are you having any thoughts?
Attune to your body. Train yourself to connect with any feelings of fullness or hunger (this will get easier with practice). Consider using a 0-10 scale of hunger and fullness (“0” means “painfully hungry” and “10” means “painfully full.”) Decide where your hunger/fullness falls on this scale. Attuning to these cues can be tremendously helpful in determining when and how much your body wants you to eat.
Overall, integrating mindfulness into eating disorder recovery can help the individual become more attuned to themselves, curious (rather than judgmental) about their experience, and patient so that they can withstand their internal process, rather than using the eating disorder to help them get through it.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with compulsive exercise or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food, body image, and movement.