An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, while tens of millions more are plagued by distorted images of their bodies. Those who struggle with body image and eating disorders need to find ways to move from a judgmental approach to one rooted in compassion. How can we foster a more positive accepting attitude toward our bodies? Research suggests that a regular dose of mindfulness may be a very effective remedy.
It’s all about awareness and acceptance. Mindfulness is the energy of being fully aware of what is happening in the present moment—both within and around us. It involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the surrounding environment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing right now rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance: we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them, without believing that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. Practicing mindfulness involves returning to this awareness again and again when our attention drifts or gets caught up in conditioned mental habits and behaviors.
You can be mindful anytime, anywhere. This simple practice doesn’t require you to subscribe to any particular set of beliefs, and it can be practiced at any time and in any situation. You can practice being mindful while driving to work, washing the dishes, during an important business meeting, or watching TV. It’s not about what you’re doing but rather about how you are doing it—with undivided attention and awareness of your experience in the present moment.
Mindfulness to the rescue. The practice is particularly helpful when you’re experiencing some kind of pain, anxiety, impulse, or insecurity. Instead of running away from unpleasant feelings, practice being mindful of them. By staying present to these feelings and observing them without judgment, you can begin to accept them and you will find that they eventually dissolve. We often take emotions (especially negative ones) very personally. But mindfulness invites us to view them as simply mental events passing through, like temporary waves in our ocean of awareness.
Practicing mindfulness can be particularly helpful if you struggle with body image and eating disorders:
- It shifts your attention away from your outward appearance towards how your body feels from the inside.
- It helps you recognize mental and behavioral habits and how you’ve been conditioned to think, feel, and act in response to various stimuli. It then opens your ability to make more conscious, deliberate choices with your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- By learning to recognize internal thoughts and feelings instead of being carried away by them, it creates new habits that counteract obstructive coping strategies.
- Mindfulness teaches the value of having a spiritual practice: a consistent method for transforming pain and allowing you to find the strength to heal.
Mindfulness can be tremendously helpful in improving our body image. It prompts us to relish the here and now and to stop chasing thinness. It reminds us to tune out the noise of destructive societal pressures, and to tune into ourselves instead. It teaches us to savor each minute and to observe our bodies, thoughts, and feelings without judgment. Through mindfulness, we can turn our negative emotions into our greatest sources of strength.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, Executive Director at The Body Image Therapy Center.