Most mornings before I get up, I make a point of listening to a guided mindfulness-meditation tape (1). Each time I repeatedly try to focus on my breath as instructed, following it as it flows in and out of my body. Sometimes I can keep my focus on my breathing for several breaths but not much longer; then my mind wanders off…. to the day ahead, the night before, somewhere, anywhere but where I am, right there, in that moment with my body and with my breath.
Why, you might ask, repeatedly go through something I find so difficult to do?
Because I have seen the positive differences it has made in my life. Being able to pay closer attention to whatever I am working on. Being better at really listening and hearing what others are saying. Being less automatic in my responses and being more fully present to what is happening as it is happening. I am not much more than a novice at this, but I have learned how mindfulness can be helpful in life in general and more specifically in the areas of food and eating.
It may be helpful to start with a definition of mindfulness. My favorite mindfulness teacher is Jon Kabat-Zinn. He defines mindfulness as the “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (2). The practice of being mindful—paying attention, full attention, to what is happening in the moment you are actually living—can enhance our lives in a variety of ways.
There is substantial literature to support the effectiveness of mindfulness in the treatment of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression (3), two conditions which frequently co-occur in individuals with eating disorders. Consider that for some people, anxiety stems from the focus on some potential negative event or occurrence. Practicing paying attention to what is happening, rather than what might happen, actually improves one’s ability to do so, resulting in greater ability to stay calm and grounded versus spiraling into the fear or uncertainty that can come with living in the future.
Another potential benefit is improved decision-making. This occurs in an area of the brain that controls processes known as “executive functioning.” We make decisions countless times a day, many small and routine, and others that carry greater consequences, such as whether to use behaviors, stay on a meal plan, or self-harm in response to a negative event. Often these responses feel automatic, out of our conscious control, and indeed lead to a sense of being out of control. Mindfulness, or paying close attention to what is going on in your mind and body in those minutes preceding that event, can allow awareness of what is coming up for you, and importantly, slow down that “automatic” reaction in a way that provides you with a little opening in which to pause, consider, and maybe make a different choice.
This is illustrated beautifully by the author Viktor Frankl:
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Coming to a meal or snack with the intention to be present with all aspects of the eating experience can also be very useful for individuals working to normalize their eating patterns and explore the factors underlying their food and eating choices. This can take several forms. Being aware of the physical (somatic) sensations of the body and exploring with curiosity and without judgment, ask yourself: What do hunger and fullness feel like in the body? Where do you feel it? What physical characteristics does it have? As you become more in tune with the actual sensations, you will be better aware of the presence or absence of hunger and fullness, and how that changes from the beginning to the end of the meal or snack. Working closely with an eating disorder professional can be very helpful, both in guiding you in this activity and in helping you manage and process the insights and associations that can arise from being truly present and engaged in the eating process. This approach has been shown to be especially helpful for individuals struggling with binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating (4-5).
The above may be all fine and good, but it doesn’t happen without devoting some time and effort to the regular practice of mindfulness. Start small—perhaps five minutes a day—following along to a mindfulness recording or reading an article, blog, or small section of a book. Understand that it is likely to be difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice.
Maybe also look for little opportunities throughout the day. Catch yourself being engaged in some activity and try to bring your undivided attention to whatever you are doing at that moment, like washing your hair or petting the dog. What do you notice that you might have missed otherwise? Or perhaps try being 100% present in a conversation you are having, noticing when your mind starts to drift and see if you can come back to being fully present with that person.
These are little things, perhaps. But as I have come to appreciate, actually being there for them as they are happening may bring greater clarity, understanding, and engagement in our lives and experiences.
Hilmar Wagner is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Dietitian (CD) in the state of Washington. Hilmar joined the Emily Program in 2006, and currently serves as the Training Coordinator for Nutrition Services and Clinical Outreach Specialist. In this role he initiates and coordinates training of new dietetic staff, dietetic interns and continuing education for nutrition services for all Emily Program locations. He has presented on a wide range of nutrition topics at local, regional and national conferences. Hilmar received his Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. He has worked in the field of eating disorders for the past 12 years. Hilmar has extensive experience working with clients of all eating disorder diagnoses in both individual and group settings. He has a particular interest in mindfulness and body-centered approaches to eating disorder recovery.
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