There are some people with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) who continue to struggle with significant body dissatisfaction well after their weight has been fully restored and normal eating patterns have been established. For these individuals, mindfulness can be a powerful tool to help them make peace with their bodies.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program for treating depression, defines mindfulness as: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
Although mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhist philosophy, it is not a religious practice in itself. Mindfulness can be practiced formally, through mediation, or informally, by learning to be mindful while performing everyday tasks.
Research has demonstrated that mindfulness can reduce the tendency to react emotionally and ruminate on transitory thoughts. It follows, then, that mindfulness – especially with its focus on acceptance and non-judgment – may help people let go of negative thoughts about their bodies.
Yoga, a mindful form of movement with benefits for both physical and mental health, can help alleviate the mental symptoms of eating disorders. A randomized controlled trial of adolescents undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders found that adding yoga to a teen’s treatment plan helped to reduce food preoccupation, body dissatisfaction, and eating disordered thoughts. In recent years, many treatment centers have added yoga to their programs.
I often recommend yoga to my newly weight-restored patients as a means of reconnecting with their bodies, reducing stress, and improving physical fitness. Recovering people frequently enjoy yoga even more than they expected to. As one of my college-aged patients told me: “When I was really sick with Anorexia, I felt like my body was something I had to beat into submission. Now, I feel like my body and I are on the same team.”
That is the essence of yoga – a union of body and mind.
Mindfulness has become very popular in the field of mental health. The newer third wave behavior therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) all contain a core component of mindfulness. These mindfulness-based treatments have been adapted specifically for targeting body image.
Anyone with a book or a computer can begin practicing mindfulness for body image. It does not require a therapist or other trained professional. There are plenty of self-help books and internet resources on this topic:
Many of my patients in their late teens and early 20’s find that taking a mindfulness approach to their body image is more helpful than a simple cognitive-behavioral approach. Letting go of the struggle, and accepting their bodies as they are right now, brings a sense of peace and contentment which is quite the opposite of the constant struggle of an eating disorder.