From Eating Disorders to Thriving: How Mindfulness Changed My Life
“Negative emotions are like unwelcome guests. Just because they show up on our doorsteps doesn’t mean they have the right to stay.” – Deepak Chopra
I grew up in a large family where quiet moments were hard to come by and chaos often spread throughout the house. I was the quiet one, slinking around the house cleaning up after everyone, taking care of their needs, which is why my siblings often called me their second mom.
So when I started to have negative thoughts about my body and about my abilities, I didn’t know how to speak up over all the noise. It seemed too hard to make everyone stop what they were doing to listen to my problems so I didn’t talk to anyone about them.
Self-doubt and negative thoughts turned into anorexia and bulimia. I starved myself, eating less and less, running more and more. My body changed but my thoughts didn’t.
I was in complete denial of the disorders and didn’t want to admit my health problems were being caused by my eating disorder behaviors. Every time my low weight was brought up by someone who loved me, I blamed it on my stomach ulcer or stress.
After another visit to the emergency room, my boyfriend convinced me to see a psychologist that specialized in eating disorders and I agreed. But even still recovery from these disorders seemed impossible.
The turning point was during a heated conversation I had with my therapist. Our conversation had been about the harm I was doing to my body and why food was good for my body. I got frustrated because I already knew everything he was saying. I have a degree in exercise science, I knew I needed food to keep my metabolism going.
But what I didn’t know was how to apply that knowledge to my disorder and how to help my brain overcome its own thoughts. We eventually got past my frustration and identified the root causes of my disorders and discussed specific memories that contributed to why I was afraid of food. He started teaching me about mindfulness and I slowly started to make progress.
My therapist helped me understand how the body and mind are connected and certain conditions that we live through can be holistic diseases, taking over the body and mind in a painful way. I was living proof that certain memories and thoughts can be so distorted that they overpower the scientific knowledge of what food is for the body.
Recovery often felt impossible, not because I did not want to recover but because the memories would steal my thoughts and overcome my body. I would feel like I was making headway with overcoming my fears, until I would be faced with a trigger. Just a few of the triggers for me would be seeing thin women on the cover of magazines or seeing the scale in the bathroom. For someone else, these situations would be manageable but for me, my brain would slip into the memory of how to respond to the situation. My brain would tell my body, “Don’t eat, that will make you feel better” without me ever having to think those words.
It seems hard to comprehend as to why these situations would cause my brain to dig out a negative thought and reaction versus digging out the facts supported by science. We rely on processes in the brain and in the body to keep us alive, so why do certain situations trigger thoughts and reactions that go against survival?
It’s a question that I don’t have a complete answer to but I have come closer to understanding the mind and body connection and how it affects our behaviors. The mind and body are an everlasting loop and what makes addictions and behaviors so frightening is that the body is always willing to do what the brain tells it to do. It’s supposed to work that way, that’s how we survive, but when the thoughts are negative, it can cause negative responses in the body.
You can’t change a thought after you have had it. But what you can change are the reactions you have to the thought. You can train your body to create new responses to those negative thoughts and observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance. That’s where I believe recovery happens. That’s where change can happen.
Part of mindfulness is accepting our thoughts and feelings without judging them, without thinking there’s a right or wrong response, and tuning into what is happening in the present moment rather than rehashing the past. Mindfulness allowed me to identify, tolerate, and reduce negative and painful thoughts. It gave me a sense of control over my thoughts and actions.
Practicing mindfulness is not really about sitting in lotus chanting “om”, yet it’s about living your life to its fullest and living in the present moment. I found the following mindfulness foundations essential to my recovery.
Accept Thoughts as Thoughts, Not as Facts
It doesn’t matter if a thought is positive or negative, it is still not fact. Thoughts may be based on something factual but they are mental events that pop in the mind.
Practice separating yourself from your thoughts by asking yourself:
- Is this thought 100% accurate?
- Is there any other way of looking at this?
- How does this thought make me feel?
- How can I respond to this thought in a positive way?
You can’t always stop the thought from occurring but you can stop yourself from believing its true and reacting in a negative way.
Allow Yourself to Feel and Express Emotions
Feelings and emotions are often labeled with certain adjectives (good, bad, right, wrong) and we’re taught to react to those feelings a certain way. But being mindful is about allowing yourself to feel those emotions, recognize why you’re feeling that way, and allowing yourself to move in the direction you need to.
Sometimes putting a time limit on feelings is a good way to move on. Allow yourself to feel without judgement and then move on as if it’s bump in the road.
In our world of to-do lists and crazy schedules, it has become so easy to multitask while eating. But if you struggle with your weight and want to connect with food in a positive way, don’t multitask when eating. We lose control when we don’t know what we’re eating or how much or how little we’ve eaten.
- Focus on the food that you’re eating.
- Focus on how it tastes; how it feels in your mouth; how it feels in your stomach.
- Think about what you’re eating so you can connect with your food.
- Add in additional sensations, like touching and smelling your food to really connect with your food.
Eating mindfully doesn’t mean counting calories and tracking every morsel that goes into your mouth. It means feeling a love and appreciation for what you are eating and how it fuels your body.
I decided to share my story of recovery in hopes that it can help someone realize you’re not alone. No one is perfect and we all have struggles. As long as you are here, there’s hope and help. There is hope to heal and to recover.