Mindfulness - Reducing Needless Physical and Emotional Suffering

If you’ve been following me for a bit, you know I greatly admire the work of Dr. Dan Siegel.  I am grateful to both a therapist and a colleague for recommending his work, which I have found extremely helpful both personally and professionally.  He works in the field of psychology and in particular the study of mindfulness as a way to attune to our own inner world, make sense of our story and therefore increase self-awareness and well-being.  In turn, we become more effective in our lives and are better able to attune to others.  

The aspects of mindfulness that I find particularly helpful for individuals with disordered eating are learning how to be nonreactive and nonjudgmental to their own thoughts, emotions and experiences and acting with awareness rather than on autopilot.  Essentially they learn how to be open, curious and compassionate while trusting themselves to make wise and intentional decisions.  

Although in his books I rarely hear him refer to it, his work reminds me very much of Acceptance Commitment Therapy – a type of therapy that takes a non-judgmental stance to thoughts and emotions (avoiding labeling a thought or emotion as good or bad or as functional or dysfunctional) and then identifying if it functions in relation to the person’s chosen values.  Can you see how great that is?  This process is intensely personal, and allows the individual to connect and attune to their own inner world, their own values and ultimately develop self-directedness (rather than reacting how their eating disorder would like them to) where they can become immune to society’s (and their eating disorder’s) values and pressures.  I am not a mental health therapist and I don’t wish to overstep my professional boundaries.  However, I have found mindfulness extremely effective as I work with individuals on reframing their thoughts and behaviors around food.  I call it “food meditation” and “body image meditation”.  

I do not believe you would need a mental illness or an eating disorder to benefit from mindfulness.  Research shows that individuals who are easily distracted, have negative self-talk, are easily offended, reactive or have a hard time expressing themselves (to name a few characteristics) are those who suffer emotional distress, regardless of whether they have a mental illness.  Mindfulness practice – learning to be curious, open and accepting of your emotions, thoughts and experiences while increasing your ability to focus attention and resist impulses – reduces needless suffering.  

Life experience often teaches us that our emotions are too big to handle.  We also are often told how we “should” feel, which leads to feelings of guilt or shame when we don’t meet that standard.  As a mother I can think of times when I have unknowingly sent this message to my kids by telling them to quit feeling a certain way, telling them how they should feel, or telling them something isn’t a big deal, when it is obviously a big deal to them.  I have found that validating their feelings is far more motivating.  It also teaches them to be curious and open to their emotions and feelings, in which they learn that they can move toward hard situations rather than running away from them.  

Recently we decreased screen time from 2 hours to 1 hour, for various reasons, which we felt made this change necessary.  My oldest son was definitely not happy with this change.  As a parent, it’s not my job to tell him how to feel, but to do what I feel is best for him.  I found that validating the fact that he was frustrated and angry was very therapeutic for him and ultimately facilitated his ability to make peace with and accept this new reality.  I found this interesting.  As I approached his feelings and emotions with curiosity, openness and acceptance, he was able to do the same.   In truth I found the whole process very humbling – as I practice mindfulness I can inspire those I love to do the same.  It just reinforced what I have always felt to be true: self-care is never selfish.  

Now listen, I am the last person you would want parenting advice from – just ask my husband, kids and those close to me.  However, I hope this example will illustrate how effective non-judgment and acceptance of our experiences can be.  While we think the critical voice in our head is keeping us safe, it’s really just making us miserable.  Approaching our experiences with curiosity and openness gives us the best chance to come out on top.  

It also allows us to not replay the same scenario over and over and over and instead see each and every experience through new eyes.  The point of mindfulness is to not allow the baggage from the past to interfere with responding effectively in the present.  Rather than function on autopilot (I feel stressed and I head to the fridge), mindfulness practice allows you to break free from self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.  I marvel watching my 5-year old, who is unencumbered with experience, use all his senses to explore life each and every day.  Mindfulness is like a “Return To Innocence”.  :)

Ultimately, this post if for those that find themselves slaves to their emotions.  Be it anxiety, disordered eating, emotional eating or an eating disorder, mindfulness is the single most effective strategy for freeing yourself from automatic responses rooted in fear.  

A mindfulness practice then would look a little like this:

1.  Learning to take a non-judgmental stance to your emotional state.  Allow it to be what it is, validate it and try to understand it rather than pushing it away or avoiding feelings.

2.  Recognize that these thoughts and emotions are just mental activity and not reality.  They will come and they will go.  The goal is not to always feel happy, but to feel peace regardless of our circumstances.  This is absolutely possible, if we quit trying to hang on to the good and push away the bad.  Rather than control (which only causes anxiety), we can learn to watch the waves of our mental activity as we stand in peace along the beach.  

3.  Identify if these thoughts meet your values or serve your higher purpose.  For example, you may have the thought that “eating makes me fat”.  For someone who wishes to make peace with food, this may not allow them to meet their goal.  Instead of assigning moral character to the thought, feeling guilty for having it or accepting it as reality, an individual may choose to just watch it float by knowing that engaging with it will lead to a dead end road they have been down too many times before.  Their value of making peace with food is at odds with the thought, no more and no less.  Make sense?

Over time, mindfulness practice can change the way the brain is wired and even the very structure of the brain.  It builds resilience and confidence and the ability to be proactive, thoughtful and intentional rather than self-deprecating, emotionally reactive and habitual.   While it may come slowly and by degrees, with consistent practice you will begin to see great progress.   
I hope this has been helpful and something shared here has settled your mind.  I challenge you to remain open to any thoughts that have come up as you have read this and allow yourself the opportunity to understand and learn from them.  It won’t ever be someone else’s words that change you – it will be the wisdom that comes as you focus inward in acceptance and curiosity.  

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD