*If you haven’t read Meditation for Eating Disorder Recovery then I’d recommend you start there.
One of the biggest lessons I have learnt through meditation is how to view anxiety with such calmness that it no longer feels like a threat. And because it no longer feels like a threat, I no longer feel the need to numb it with eating or exercise.
This is because meditation teaches you how to separate YOU from your thoughts and fears and worries. How to be aware of these anxieties without becoming involved in them. How to observe them without believing them. How to accept that these thoughts, and anxieties and insecurities will pop up from time to time (because thoughts think themselves), but to also recognise that you DO have control over how you respond to them. You DO have control over whether you give them any meaning, whether you act on them, and whether you let them stop you from living a meaningful and fulfilling life.
There are two coping strategies to anxiety, stress, and insecurity that people experiencing issues with food and body image usually take. Some people tend to get fully sucked into the anxiety to the point where they are consumed by calorie counting or obsession about weight whilst others tend to fully numb it by eating or staving or over exercising (and some flip between the two).
This is what I call touch and grab and touch and go coping.
Touch and Grab
Danielle* was a touch and grabber. Whenever she felt anxious or stressed or insecure about her body or her work or her relationship, she would grab at the thoughts and feelings and get sucked into a made up story lines. She acknowledged she had a tendency to create drama around situations that required no drama and whenever life felt too overwhelming, she would become preoccupied with food and dieting to the point where making a simple decision about what she was having for lunch would spiral into a mental battle like this one:
“Shall I have salad or a sandwich? If I have the salad then it’s less calories but I will probably still be hungry afterwards and if I’m hungry then I might not have a good gym session and I didn’t go to the gym yesterday so I should really go today but if I have the sandwich then I might be too full and I don’t want to go to the gym bloated because everyone will look and me and think I’m fat and out of control which I really am so maybe I’ll just skip lunch altogether… Yes, I’ll just skip lunch because I don’t really need it and I’m not that hungry… but what if my metabolism slows down and then I’ll gain weight really easily and everyone will think I’m unhealthy and unlovable… because I am unlovable and my partner doesn’t really want to be with me so maybe I should just leave him before he leaves me… ”
Danielle was grabbing at the anxiety and holding on to it. By giving meaning to her fears around food, she ended up feeling more and more anxious around food and every other element of her life too. The only way that Danielle felt she could stop this anxiety was simply to skip meals altogether. This allowed the spiral of fear, insecurity and food obsession to continue.
Go and Go
Rob* had been struggling with emotional eating since he was a child. Whenever he felt emotional or insecure he would attempt to numb the emotion in the only way he knew how – with food. Whenever he had a difficult day, he would try and numb the thoughts that told he wasn’t good enough at his job or he had no friends, by eating. His approach to difficult feelings and unwanted thoughts was to push them away, to avoid them, to pretend they didn’t exist. But the only way he knew how to do that was using food. And this worked for so long, until he realised that his destructive relationship with food and health issues coming from his overeating (knee pain, trouble walking, getting out of breath easily, pre-diabetes…) were becoming one of the things he was, ironically, trying to numb out using food.
Touch and grab and go and go coping strategies which encourage you to either dramatise your anxiety and emotions by wallowing in them or distract yourself from them by numbing out.
A far healthier and gentler approach to difficult emotions and unwanted thoughts is to touch and go.
Touch and Go
This all about touching the emotion or the thought or the insecurity by noticing it is there and then letting it go. No getting sucked into the storyline. No acting on the thoughts. No numbing out. No drama. No distraction. Simply notice that you feel a certain way and that a thought has popped into your mind. Detach yourself from it. And let it pass.
Danielle* found this approach meant she no longer got sucked into the mental battles around food every meal time. Instead of the decision over what to have for lunch spiralling into her feeling unlovable and that she should leave her boyfriend like it used to, she began to acknowledge the anxiety that came with choosing what to have lunch, waited for it to pass, and then made a meal choice that she knew would nourish her.
Likewise, when Rob* felt a difficult emotion he began to be able to sit with it, knowing that, whilst it might feel uncomfortable, it was simply an emotion or a thought and it couldn’t hurt him. Instead of reaching for a tub of ice cream or family sized chocolate bar to numb out the discomfort, by touching the emotion and letting it go, he learnt that the anxiety and feelings of not enough-ness would pass on their own. As he learnt how to sit with his discomfort, he no longer needed to eat for emotional reasons, so his binge-eating reduced, his weight naturally settled at a healthy weight, and his health improved.
Let’s Give It a Go…
Find a comfortable seated position and focus on your breath. Begin by practising the extremes.
Start with the ‘touch and grab’ coping method. Notice whatever thought or emotion comes into your mind and focus on it, allowing a story to develop and letting yourself get sucked into the drama. After a couple of minutes, bring yourself out of the storyline and notice how you’re feeling.
Now practise the other extreme – ‘go and go’. Let whatever thought or emotion arise, and ignore it by focusing on something else. Every time a feeling arises block it out by thinking of something else. It can help to think of a simple object like an animal or a piece of fruit, to distract you from whatever emotion arises. After a couple of minutes, reconnect with yourself.
Finally practise balance using ‘touch and go’. As a feeling arises, touch it gently by noticing it and engaging with the energy of the emotion for a moment without getting sucked into the story behind it. Allow yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt, and then let the feeling pass. Notice how much more balanced and grounded you feel when you allow yourself to experience emotions without avoidance or attachment.
For more meditations see: