Mental Health Awareness Week 2018: mindfulness and eating disorders

TRIGGER WARNING - EATING DISORDERS

I have written about mental health, disordered eating, and body positivity in the past, but I felt that it was important to write this blog post in honour of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) 2018 as well as in (dis)honour of Kim Kardashian’s ad for appetite suppressing lollipops that went viral this week. Spreading awareness about eating disorders (and mental health issues in general) is important, not only for each individual struggling with various mental health concerns, but also so that one day we can change the extreme influence society and social media has on disordered eating and body shaming. Therefore, my second MHAW 2018 blog post is dedicated to eating disorders and how mindfulness can help us repair our relationship with food (click here to read my first MHAW 2018 blog post on mindfulness and stress).

Eating disorder awareness

There is a huge variety of eating disorders out there, including, but not limited to, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED). Eating disorders differ greatly in typical age of onset, symptoms, and prevalence by gender, as well as causes, severity, and symptoms in individuals who live with them. But they are much more alike than they are different.

All eating disorders are characterised by an unhealthy relationship with food and significant reductions in mental (and physical) health and wellbeing. What they are not characterised by is what type of food a person eats, how much they eat, when they eat, how much they weigh, or what they look like. Eating disorders can (and do) affect anyone.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to give a detailed account of all causes and symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating. So today’s post will be dedicated to discussing a potential solution in light of the current difficulties of recovery. And in my opinion, perhaps the single most important difficulty of recovery lies in the environment that surrounds us.

1517949264210Our environment is our society. Our society is shaped by years and generations of impossible body ideals, unhealthy diet fads (appetite suppressing lollipops? Really?!), and unrealistic body expectations. Body shaming is everywhere. It is in the adverts promoting detox teas, it is in the choices to cast thin and able-bodied actors in movies, and it is in every magazine that tells women (and men) that they need to change something about their appearance.

But this constant stream of messages that we are exposed to is not only on television or on social media. It is sometimes much closer than that. Maybe it is a coworker complaining about eating a piece of cake. Maybe it is a family member commenting on your weight. Maybe it is a friend making a joke about you taking a second portion at dinner. Maybe it is a person sitting next to you on the bus talking about getting his or her body beach-ready.

While all these examples might seem like minute details of everyday conversation, it is here the big problem lies. We start differentiating between foods that are “good” and “bad” and we start thinking that there is an “ideal” weight to be and the “right” way to look. Worst of all, we start believing that “healthy” foods are those that are low in fat and sugar, those that replace actual food, or even those that suppress our natural appetite.

750897f3a8ee3968088483b199b18a69--loving-your-body-quotes-love-your-bodySo here is my solution. It is not an easy solution. It will not happen overnight. And it will require a massive rebuilding of our current environment. Nonetheless, I have said it before and I will say it again: body positivity. I believe that body positivity is the single most important step in eating disorder recovery, because there is another element that all eating disorders (to some extent) share: disturbance in perceived body image.

So how does mindfulness fit in? 

Lessons from mindfulness

This blog post will focus specifically on how mindfulness can help you cope with disordered eating. However, it is important to remember that there are many different eating disorder treatments out there. If you are experiencing disordered eating, remember that you are not alone. You can seek help through the NHS, Beat, or the National Centre for Eating Disorders, among others.

  1. Mindful eating. As a well-researched topic, mindful eating has been linked to improved eating disorder symptoms in a variety of eating disorders and is aimed at creating a healthier relationship with food. We can practice mindful eating by listening to our body when it tells us that we are hungry or full, intentionally paying attention to the food as we eat it, and removing all distractions while we eat.
  2. Body acceptance. Mindfulness meditation fosters body acceptance and teaches us to treat ourselves with love, kindness, and compassion. It can make us more aware of the perpetual stream of messages that we receive about our body not being good enough, so that we can become stronger and more resistant to them.
  3. Impermanence. Impermanence might sound like a complex topic, but it is related to disordered eating in many ways. Mindfulness teaches us that nothing is permanent, whether it is our weight, our mental health struggles, or our bad body image days. Most importantly, mindfulness teaches us that life is fleeting and that we are so much more than how we look or how much we weigh. Our appearance is such a small part of who we are and we should cherish each and every moment that we get to be alive.
  4. Gratitude. When was the last time you truly appreciated your body not for the way it looks, but for what it has done for you? Has your body allowed you to give birth? Has your body allowed you to complete a marathon or a trek? Has your body given you the chance to travel and explore? Has your body kept you alive? Mindfulness teaches us to be grateful and focus on what we do have, instead of on what we do not have.
  5. The journey. Finally, we should remember that the journey to body positivity is just like the journey to enlightenment. It takes time, commitment, and practice.

Do try this at home

  1. Pay attention to your body’s cues of hunger and fullness and nourish your body. Turn off the television and put away your phone, so that you can stay present while you are eating and do not skip meals.
  2. Surround yourself with positive people and follow accounts that make you feel good about yourself just the way you are. Disconnect from all people and social media accounts that make you feel like you need to look or be a certain way. Also, change your physical environment by throwing away clothes that do not fit you, buying clothes that make you happy, and ditching the scale.
  3. When you have an urge to engage in disordered eating, do not fight the urge, but simply observe this urge as something that is separate from you.
  4. If you feel negative thoughts and feelings start to arise, take a few deep breaths or engage in a short meditation practice to bring your mind back to the present moment, but remember that it is perfectly fine to feel insecure sometimes.
  5. Try to become aware of behaviours that may foster disordered eating by imagining that you have a child and thinking about what messages your current behaviours would likely be sending to them.
  6. Reframe the parts of you that you consider flaws as benefits: every stretch mark, scar, lump, and bump tells your story of where you have been and what you have accomplished.
  7. Find a sport or a type of exercise that makes you feel good about yourself. Have you tried yoga or dancing?
  8. When you feel self-critical, ask yourself if you would say those words to someone you love, and then make the person you love yourself.
  9. Remember that there are no correlations between losing weight and feeling happy.
  10. Remember that mental health always comes first.

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