Many people with eating disorders are constantly trying to avoid emotions (experiential avoidance) by engaging in behaviours such as binge eating and purging.
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to our emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations in the present moment without judgement. Mindfulness involves noticing experiences without trying to change or fix them, even if the experience is uncomfortable. If an experience is uncomfortable mindfulness is simply about noticing that. Paying attention in this way allows us to view an experience with a balanced perspective between reason and emotion (as opposed to from an emotional perspective), consequently reducing eating disordered behaviour (Safer, Telch, & Chen, 2009).
What do we need to do to be mindful?
There are three skills which teach us what to do in order to be mindful. These include:
Observe skills involve sensing or experiencing without labelling an experience with words. We can observe internal (inside our body) or external (outside our body) experiences. For example you may observe urges to binge eat without getting caught up in the experience, judging it (good or bad), or acting upon the urges.
Describe skills involve using words to describe what we observe. Mindfulness describing involves labelling observations without judging. For example, you may notice that your stomach is rumbling and may label it as “I am feeling hungry”, or you may hear a bird chirping outside and label the experience as “I am noticing the sound of a bird chirping”. This can also be done with thoughts, such as by labelling a thought as a thought, for example, “I am having the thought that I am fat”. This does not mean that the thought is fact; it is simply just a thought and nothing more than that. Similarly we can also describe emotions, for example, “I am feeling frustrated”.
Participate skills are about fully engaging into your experience by letting go of self-consciousness. A person who is participating does so by entering completely in the activity of the present moment. Some examples of this may be mindful eating, yoga, horse riding, dancing, and singing. Doing these activities in a mindful way is done by observing, describing, and participating without feeling self-conscious.
How do we practice the skills of Observe, Describe, and Participate?
Non-judgmentally involves taking a non-judgemental approach to observing, describing, and participating. Judgements are when we evaluate something or someone as ‘good or bad’ or ‘right or wrong’. Instead of describing an experience through judgement, try to describe it in terms of its consequences. For example, instead of judging that we are a failure for binge eating, try to describe binge eating by its harmful effects on your self-esteem and physical health.
If you notice thoughts that hold judgement such as “I am a failure” just observe and describe the judgement without judging your judging. For example you might acknowledge, “I am noticing judgement about the fact that I have an eating disorder”.
One mindfully involves focusing on one thing at a time within any given moment. For example if we are eating, driving, watering the garden, brushing our teeth, walking, listening to music, or cooking, we are focusing on only that one activity without our attention wandering. If and when our mind does wander, one-mindfully is about noticing that and bringing ourselves back to the present moment and present activity. By dwelling on the past or thinking about the future we miss out on what is happening in the present. Life is only a series of moments.
Effectively is about focusing on behaving in accordance with your goals. This is about following rules, even if the rules result in experiencing discomfort. An example of this might be letting go of restriction, binging, purging, or other eating disordered behaviour and instead focusing on being mindful.
How can we improve our ability to be mindful?
It is important to know that Mindfulness is not an instant fix and it does take time and practice.
One activity which has been shown to assist with improving our ability to be mindful is yoga (Shelov, Suchday, & Friedberg, 2009). A key component of yoga is focused attention to the present moment. Attention is focused on physical sensations associated with breathing and moving from one posture to another. In this way yoga provides a focal point for our attention. Yoga also involves exploring capabilities and limits of the body in a non-judgemental way. Through the movement of the body into different postures, yoga delivers a good exercise to practice the observing, describing and participating skills of mindfulness (Salmon, et al., 2009).
Salmon, P., Lush, E., Jablonski, M., & Sephton, S.E. (2009). Yoga and Mindfulness: Clinical Aspects of an Ancient Mind/Body Practice. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. 16(1), 59-72. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2008.07.002
Shelov, D.V., Suchday, S., & Friedberg, J.P. (2009). A Pilot Study Measuring the Impact of Yoga on the Trait of Mindfulness. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 37(5), 595-598. doi:10.1017/S1352465809990361
Safer, D.L., Telch, C.F., & Chen, E.Y. (2009). Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Binge Eating and Bulimia. New York: The Guilford Press.