Mindfulness and Eating Disorders

Mindfulness can be defined as a practice of being aware of the body, your thoughts, feelings and the surrounding environment, in the present moment in a non-judgemental way. This is done through meditation and other techniques, to create a sense of calm.

Mindfulness meditation started in the Buddhist practice, for the sole purpose of finding a way to overcome grief, sorrow, pain and anxiety and to realise happiness. In 1979, an eight-week programme was made titled Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for therapeutic care of individuals with terminal illnesses or chronic conditions as many of them suffered from anxiety and depression. This later developed into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as a management approach for depression, anxiety and eating disorders. These programs have helped many people find a way to live with and manage their distress and has been used in many sectors including institutions, healthcare, business and sports.

For individuals with an eating disorder, their minds are often occupied with recurring thoughts of food and calories and how it will make them gain weight or obsess over exercise. This can lead to anxiety which stimulates the stress reaction in our bodies, called the fight or flight mechanism. It was used for survival purposes by our ancestors, where they would fight or escape from the stressful situation. When our bodies detect a threat, the mechanism causes the body to alter its function to encounter the danger e.g. increasing heart rate and the release of the stress hormone – cortisol.  These small alterations, if they happen frequently, can be quite harmful to our health. Mindfulness can help alleviate some of this anxiety by switching off the stress reaction and creating a calm response. When individuals become mindful, they are able to discover the stressors that cause their anxiety and divert them from these harmful thoughts. A review of mindfulness-based eating disorder programmes has found that these programs have significantly reduced body image concerns and negative affect, improve body appreciation and self-esteem once the program had finished.

The techniques used in mindfulness require a lot of practice to maintain the skill. Visualisation is a guided imaginary technique, which redirects ones attention from present, fixated thoughts towards another focus to relax the body and mind. For example visualising that you are on a beach, focusing on different sounds, smells and how different elements feel. Mindfulness also has techniques that allow individuals to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings. Word association is a technique in which the individual becomes aware of words that can induce a positive or negative memory. Finding words that cause positive associations will help bring positive memories when other negative thoughts flood the mind. Going on a mindful walk is a way to become more aware of the environment around you. Often when individuals obsess about their thoughts, they can become unaware of their surroundings. For example, they could go on a known route many times but may have not noticed that there is a tree on their pathway. Making sure you notice your surroundings in the present can keep you focused on the present rather than focusing on incoming negative thoughts and feelings.

Rhodes Wood Hospital provides specialist inpatient care and treatment for children and young people aged 8 -18 years old with an eating disorder.

Our expert multi-disciplinary team provide person-centred care that is tailored to meet the physical and medical/mental health needs of each individual, to support them through their journey with us and to continue their treatment in the community.