A Key To My Recovery: Creating a Support Network
We asked InsideOut volunteer, Rachel Wilson, about what helped her most on the road to recovery from an eating disorder.
19 Nov, 2018
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that require intensive, evidence-based treatments delivered by a range of trained professionals. However, there are many other pursuits and activities that some people may find helpful. This blog is part of our series, A Key To My Recovery, which provides a direct reflection of the unique experiences of the author and may not be the experience of everyone. Always seek out professional advice for you.
We asked InsideOut champion, Liam Manning, 20, about the one thing that helped him most on the road to recovery from Anorexia Nervosa.
His answer might surprise you, because it has nothing to do with food.
“One of the biggest factors to me recovering from my eating disorder is practicing mindfulness.
“After doing it, those feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness - no matter how strong they are - dissipate. You’ve just got to wait them out.”
Every single person experiences distressing emotions at some point - it is an inescapable part of the human experience! But not everyone deals with them in a healthy way.
People with eating disorders often use disordered behaviours to mask and avoid overwhelming emotions, like anxiety and anger. Learning to deal with these emotions in a positive way is often a major part of the recovery process.
Liam says that when uncomfortable emotions flare up, he uses mindfulness to take the edge off. So instead of resorting to destructive eating disorder behaviours, he can ride out the “emotional wave” until the discomfort passes.
“Mindfulness is the best way for me to allow those emotions to go away.”
Mindfulness is the practice of paying full attention to the here and now, living completely in the present moment. It is focusing on what is going on inside of you and around you - noticing things like your thoughts, your bodily sensations, your breath.
A key to mindfulness is having a spirit of openness and acceptance. Your experiences and feelings are not meant to be judged - they are simply observed and acknowledged for what they are.
Mindfulness expert Dr Rebecca Crane describes it like this:
“It is simply being aware of what is going on, as it is arising, attending deeply and directly with it and relating to it with acceptance: a powerful act of participatory observation.
Although simple in its intention and essence, mindfulness practice often feels hard work. It is a practice through which we systematically train ourselves to be confident to “turn towards'” whatever arises in our experience.
This runs counter to our instinct to avoid the difficult and challenging aspects to our experience.” (1)
The benefits of mindfulness are seemingly endless. Research shows improvements in everything from sleep, to mood, to relationships. You can read up on the science at Headspace, click this link: https://www.headspace.com/science/meditation-benefits.
For people with eating disorders, mindfulness is a useful tool to help regulate the very emotions that trigger or exacerbate disordered behaviours, such as bingeing, restricting or excessive exercise. Mindfulness doesn’t stop the strong feelings from arising - it simply helps you acknowledge, tolerate and “ride” them until they pass.
Mindfulness can also help reduce the constant worrying about food, shape and weight often experienced by people with eating disorders. Since mindfulness focuses on the present moment, it allows very little space for unhelpful ruminations and recurrent thoughts about the past or future.
Mindfulness can help with other aspects of recovery too, like body image and self-acceptance. Research shows mindfulness meditation resulted in greater acceptance of the body and self for people with anorexia, and reduced their feelings of “fatness” (2).
Integrating mindfulness into your daily life does not come naturally. It takes practice! You have to be deliberate and intentional in cultivating it.
In this video, Liam describes a simple breathing exercise he finds helpful and uses frequently.
“If I’m extremely stressed, I’ll do a breathing technique. I’ll breath in slowly for three seconds, out for three, in for three, out for three, slowly,” Liam says.
“I just put all of my concentration on the breath - the feeling of it coming in, the feeling of it coming out.”
“When my mind wonders - which it will do - I acknowledge that thought and I look at it as though I’m an observer of that thought. I go, ‘Oh, that’s a judgment’ or ‘Oh, that’s anger’ or ‘That’s sadness’ and that will distance you from that thought.
“Then I just come back to the breath and I may have to do it 10, 15, 20 times, coming back to the breath.”
“But after it, those feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness, no matter how strong they are, dissipate.
“You’ve just got to wait them out, because it will reach a level where you think you can no longer tolerate it, and it will just slowly recede.”
Below is a list of simple, introductory exercises and other resources to help get you started:
Smiling Mind - https://www.smilingmind.com.au
Smiling Mind: Mindfulness introduction video - <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sceq4mtZhjI >
Getting Started with Mindfulness - https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
Take a Mindful Moment: 5 Simple Practices for Daily Life - https://www.mindful.org/take-a-mindful-moment-5-simple-practices-for-daily-life/
UCLA Guided Meditations - http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations
A 5-Minute Breathing Meditation for Beginners - https://soundcloud.com/mindfulmagazine/5-minute-breathing-meditation
ACT Mindfully resources - https://www.actmindfully.com.au/free-stuff/free-audio/
Black Dog mindfulness fact sheet - https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/default-source/psychological-toolkit/7-mindfulnessineverydaylife-(with-gp-notes).pdf?sfvrsn=2
University of Sydney resources - https://sydney.edu.au/students/health-wellbeing/mindfulness-relaxation.html
Smiling Mind - https://www.smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app
ReachOut Breathe - https://schools.au.reachout.com/articles/reachout-breathe
Stop, Breathe and Think - https://www.stopbreathethink.com
(1) Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Distinctive Features. London: Routledge.
(2) Rawal, Adhip & Park, Rebecca & Enayati, Jasmin & Mark G Williams, J. (2009). A mindful approach to eating disorders. Healthcare Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal. 9.