Begin again. And again. And Again.

Forgive again. And again. And again.

Love again. And again. And again.

This is what I have learnt from meditation. To begin again every time my mind wanders or I mess up or I make a mistake. To forgive again every time I feel ashamed of having an eating disorder in the past or feel guilty over the pain I put my family through or I chose the wrong path. To love again every time I feel heartbroken or scared or lost.

Up until recently, meditation was seen as pretty ‘woo-woo’. But in the last couple of decades, science has found it has several benefits that will not only help you escape the diet mentality and recover from disordered eating, but will allow to experience life with more joy, love, meaning, connection, and fulfilment. 

What Is Meditation?

Being healthy means being whole. This includes your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health (if reading about spiritual stuff feels a bit weird to you then just think of your spirit as that part of you that feels like hope – your values and passions and that feeling where are fully present, fully alive).

Meditation is a way to care for all these parts of yourself – mind, body, and spirit. It is a holistic approach to being human that can be traced back over 3000 years which focuses on developing self-awareness, inner calm, and compassion so you can be aware of your thoughts without judging them or acting on them and undo any unhealthy behavioural patterns (including those surrounding food) and instead develop healthier strategies for coping with the stresses and storms of life.

It can be described as:

  • A form of mental training which has lasting changes to thoughts and emotions
  • A complementary and integrative technique that increases the capacity to focus and open oneself
  • A method to quiet the mind, reduce stress and cultivate inner harmony
  • The control of attention
  • A technique that produces muscular and psychological relaxation and develops the capacity to focus attention
  • A self-induced state whereby you can view your thoughts and emotions without judgement or reaction
  • A practice to cultivate compassion and loving-kindness towards yourself and all living beings

My Experience Of Meditation

I stumbled across meditation by accident. I hated it to start with. I thought it was a waste of time. I struggled to sit still, I felt too anxious and I thought my mind was too busy. But what I began to realise was that those were the exact reasons why I needed to meditate.

Anxious had become my default state – my normal. I had felt that way for so long that I forgot that there was another way to feel. But slowly, as I learnt how to sit with my thoughts and fears and feelings of not enough-ness, without judgement or self-criticism, with all the uncomfortable energy, without doing anything about it – no running, no hiding, no numbing it with starvation or over-exercise, I learnt that these thoughts and feelings and fears had no power over me. I could simply let them come. And let them go.

I didn’t have to act on the thoughts that told me I was worthless by starving myself. I didn’t have to react to the anxiety I felt over being out of control by obsessively controlling what I ate. I didn’t have to respond to the urge to do thousands of sit-ups because I felt fat. I could simply notice these thoughts, and feelings, and urges, separate them from what I wanted deep down (health and strength and freedom), let them go, and get on with my life.

A lot of my clients find that even after a week of daily meditation, they feel calmer and more compassionate towards themselves and are starting to be able to separate their automatic destructive thoughts from the health and happiness they really want. (Read more about separating your habitual thoughts from the real you here: How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits).

Benefits Of Meditation

Research suggests that regular meditation can lead to the following…

Psychological and Emotional Changes

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced depression
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced ruminative thoughts (mind wandering)
  • Increased emotional regulation – the ability to respond to life stressors in a healthy way
  • Increased quality of life
  • Increased compassion
  • Increased mindfulness
  • Increased ability to undo conditioned behaviours (e.g. unhealthy habits)
  • Improved attention
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Increased empathy
  • Spiritual growth
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced pre-menstrual symptoms

Physiological Changes

  • Improved immunity and reduced autoimmune disturbance
  • Increased telomere length (if your chromosomes carrying your DNA are shoelaces, telomeres are like the little protective tips at the ends of them. Once telomeres wear down, the chromosomes aren’t protected properly which causes age related diseases like diabetes, cancer, and a weakened immune system)
  • Hormonal and neurotransmitter (brain chemical) changes that indicate deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system) and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and restore system) – so you feel calmer and less stressed
  • Reduced heart rate, breathing rate and skin temperature reflecting a state of relaxation

Neurological (Brain) Changes

Whilst research into how meditation changes the structure of the brain itself is still young, brain imaging studies suggest meditation can have an impact on areas related to…

  • Emotion regulation (anterior and mid-cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortex)
  • Introspection (sensory cortices)
  • Meta-awareness – thinking about thinking (insular cortex)
  • Memory consolidation and reconsolidation – important in learning new habits (hippocampus)

This is really exciting as it shows that meditating doesn’t just have an impact on your present state (how you feel in the moment) but on your traits (consistent and long lasting feelings and parts of your personality).

How Does Meditation Help Eating Disorder Recovery?

Meditation is powerful in eating disorder recovery because:

  1. It helps you connect to your inner world (including your appetite)
  2. It reduces anxiety by teaching you how to be present
  3. It helps you separate disordered eating thoughts from your true self
  4. It helps you break unhealthy habits and create healthy ones
  5. It teaches you how to be compassionate towards yourself and others
  6. It helps you respond to stresses in your life in healthy ways instead of through starvation, emotional eating, or over-exercise
  7. It helps draw your awareness inwards so you can tune into your appetite and eat in accordance to how your body feels rather than following food rules
  8. It helps you reconnect with yourself, with others and with the world

How To Meditate

There are lots of meditation techniques and methods depending on what you would like to cultivate within you (focus, calmness, compassion, body love, loving-kindness…) but this is how I would recommend starting off:

  1. Find a quiet space. Sit down and bring your focus to your breath. Tune into YOU. Who you really are without the disordered eating or obsessive dieting or urges to lose weight or desire to be anyone other than who you are.
  2. Bring your focus to your breath and begin to notice any thoughts, worries, or fears that pop into your mind.
  3. Instead of getting caught up in these thoughts, simply acknowledge them and bring your focus back to your breath. Each time you find yourself getting sucked into a thought (this will happen A LOT to begin with), come back to your breath.

Instead of jumping straight in with a 30-minute meditation practice and getting overwhelmed, I would start off with one minute a day for a week. It doesn’t sound like much, but EVERYONE can put one minute aside for meditation. What you will find is that you will want to stay there longer. So, then build it up to two minutes. Then three minutes. Then five minutes. Then 10 minutes. And then begin to explore different meditations.

There are loads of meditation techniques in my book Thrive Through Yoga: a 21-Day Journey To Ease Anxiety, Love Your Body and Feel More Alive, and these are my favourites for eating disorder recovery (just click on the name to take you to instructions):

  1. Just a Passing Cloud Meditation
  2. Touch and Go Meditation
  3. Metta Meditation (Self-Compassion Meditation)

As always, I love to hear from you so just leave a comment if you have any questions or found this helpful!

You can read a review paper on the impact of meditation on brain structure here.