Meditation for Eating Disorders

Meditation for Eating Disorders — A Cynics Guide 4


It cracks me up that people assume I am a spiritual person because I meditate. I’m not.

I don’t meditate because I am trying to be a good person either. I meditate because it helps me keep my shit together. 

I’m a twice certified yoga instructor. I’ve taught hundreds of mediation classes over the years. I spent a year doing Kundalini yoga trying by very best to believe that Yogi Bhajan was anything other than a crook who got lucky. I’ve sat for hours in an uncomfortable lotus pose on a silly round cushion listening to some “guru” prattle on about finding my inner spiritual energy. Well I’ll be darned if I could find it.

After a couple of years of feeling like the only person in the yoga studio who could see the the emperor was indeed … butt naked, I gave up. Turns out, my “inner bliss” is found when I allow myself to just be me — a cynical, sarcastic, sometimes-irritable-but-mostly-alright … human.

I’m not spiritual. I meditate because it helps me not be crazy. I meditate for the shortest time possible to do so and get the results I need because I find it mind-numbingly boring (ironically, that is probably the whole point.) I don’t enjoy meditating. I would probably rather do just about anything than sit there with my eyes closed trying to track my breathing and thought patterns.

But here’s the deal. Meditation is a tool. It is a tool that enables you to recognize your thoughts and emotions, and then make a choice about whether or not you want to “get into it” with them.

 

How not to start a fight with a Granny in Costco

Here’s an example of how meditation helped me last week:

In Costco. It’s busy. Rammed with people. Gross. Get-me-the-hell-out-of-here sort of day. I’m queueing at the checkout. Out of the corner of my eye I can see this Granny start nudging her cart so that it not behind me where it should be, but alongside me. Then, as the queue moves along, she’s trying to get ahead of me.

Now, I wasn’t in the best of moods to start with. Granted. But I began to get really pissed off with the Old Cod. My irritation went from prickly to getting hot under the bra strap. I was about to call her out with something like “What the hell Granny!” … then I checked myself. Took a deep breath. Calmed by breathing, and decided this was not worth getting irate about. Then, I started to giggle a bit because it’s so bloody stupid of me to get all hot and bothered about an old woman in a queue at Costco. Instead of yelling at her I pulled my own cart back and said “Would you like to go in front of me?”

Turns out, she had left her glasses at home and could barely see the queue at all. When I spoke to her she looked around herself and innocently asked “Who … me?” Yeah, she had no idea she had been queue jumping. I felt like a right dick for getting mad at her, even if it had only been in my head. She was so astounded at me being nice and letting her go in front of me too. 

Ten years ago that would not have happened. Ten years ago I would have yelled at her like a prat. The difference is my mediation practice.

Mediation is as simple as mind control. Under mind control comes emotion control. If one can control one’s emotions, one can usually avoid being a dick. I was able to detect that I was feeling angry, distance myself from the emotion of anger, and then chose not to feel angry. As soon as I had made the choice not to be angry, my anger left — and was replaced with humour.

(I should point out that there have been plenty of times, plenty, when I have checked my anger and then made a concerted decision to roll with it.)

 

What has all this got to do with eating disorders?

Anorexia gave me a fear reaction to food. And intense anxiety at the thought of eating food. When I was able to detect the emotion of fear, and distance myself from that emotion, I was able to choose not to be fearful.

That took a ton of practice. But worth every second of it. Being able to distinguish and control my mental reactions to “perceived” threats was a game changer for me in terms of eating disorder recovery.

 

Here’s how it works

Nervous systems; parasympathetic and sympathetic. The former is the “relaxed, resting, chilled out, able to think straight” state. The latter is “fight or flight.” Eating disorders put sufferers into the sympathetic nervous system when they think of or see food.

Here’s the thing with the sympathetic nervous system: it’s very difficult to think rationally when you are in it. This is because the prefrontal cortex (that’s the part of your brain where you think logically) has it’s fuel supply limited when you are in your sympathetic nervous system. It’s fight or flight remember? Not think. Why would you need to think when your options should be run or fisticuffs?

Meditation or “mindfulness” allows you to remove yourself from the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system at will. At will. How cool is that? (This is like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix or something)

How? It’s actually pretty simple. It is all about your breathing. It is impossible to freak out while you are breathing long and slow deep breaths. Impossible. Try it if you don’t believe me. Next time you are about to lose your shit, breathe long and slow deep breaths. Boom. You’re “out” of the sympathetic nervous system and “into” the parasympathetic one when you do that.

As soon as you breathe slowly, your prefrontal cortex gets a look in. That’s why I was able to suddenly find it funny that I was mad at this old Granny. Because it was irrational and stupid of me.

It’s also why I was able to get myself to eat when my eating disorder was telling me food would kill me.

 

The big meditation myth

It is a complete and utter fabrication that one has to be a “spiritual” (or nice) person in order to practice mindfulness. In fact, turns out that some of the most nasty narcissistic people in the world (i.e. most politicians) are awesome at controlling their emotional reactions.

Trump, by the way, isn’t so hot at this, and this is why he stands out as a non-politician politician. He gets mad. He tweets really stupid shit without even taking the time to spellcheck. God forbid Trump ever start a mindfulness practice because then he really would be a lot more dangerous. Thankfully we all know loud and clear what emotion he is feeling at any given time. 

I hate that all images to do with mediation are of people sitting on mountains in the lotus pose. That’s not where mindfulness is useful. Where is mindfulness useful? In a queue when you are about to get into a fight. Or — for those of us who sufferer from a mental illness that makes us scared of food — at mealtimes. 

 

The other big meditation myth

That you have to sit there for hours. Codswallop. I’ve done that and actually found it far less useful than the meditation practice that I have now — which is about 3 minutes 3 times a week. 

The only thing that I got out of sitting for hours was a sore bum. And bored. Sure, some days I might want to sit longer but that is a choice rather than a requirement.

 

A couple of meditations to get you going

I just wrote up some mindfulness resources and posted them on the Active Eating Disorder Recovery for Adults (AEDRA) site. You can find them under “Free Resources.” There are some meditations in there, and none of them are longer than 4 minutes (unless you want them to be). Have a look at the site while you are there and let me know what you think!

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.


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4 thoughts on “Meditation for Eating Disorders — A Cynics Guide

  • Helen Barnes

    Great blog again Tabitha!
    Great advice – not to feel obliged to sit for an hour or more to meditate but the benefits of doing regular short meditations in fighting the ED is really helpful to know!
    Plus I have a great mental image of you with the granny in the queue!!

  • Dee

    Wow this was incredible. I was nodding my head the entire time. I feel so pessimistic at times. I’m not spiritual or religious. But I do benefit from taking meditation every day. It helps me tremendously with my anxiety. I don’t feel like a nice person. Oh Tabitha, you are a breath of fresh air to me. The connections that you have helped me make and just understanding the biology of my illness have proven most helpful in this process. It’s helpful for me to accept myself as I am-and that is not all rainbows and butterflies and positive thoughts. Its helpful for me to live in reality.