Can Meditation Help People with Eating Disorders?

Until recently meditation was considered a practice exclusive to gurus in caves and swamis on mountain tops. Now more mainstream than alternative, you’ll see meditation mentioned in even the most conservative of medical and psychological journals. Academics and researchers are increasingly interested in how meditation effects our thoughts, our behaviours, and even the very structure and function of our brains.

One reason the field of psychology is so interested in meditation is the recognition that meditation practices can help us develop healthy mental processes. Meditation is a form of mind training which can improve our attention, our ability to choose the focus of our thoughts, and restore healthy relationships with our own inner dialogue.

Meditation is fundamentally about finding peace in our relationship with ourselves. It’s also about calming the voice of the inner critic and developing more self-compassion, enhancing ways of thinking which support rather than hinder us.

Some of the common psychological experiences of people with Eating Disorders are patterns of obsessive thinking which are highly self-critical and ruminative, dominated by concerns about food, appearance, weight and shape. Try as they might, many of our clients say they’ve been unable to stop these thoughts, and sometimes they feel their lives have been completely overtaken by this obsessive thinking.

So how might meditation help?

One of the best ways to understand the potential benefits of meditation is in terms of neuro-plasticity. Every time we have a thought and then repeat that thought over and over, we create neural pathways which (through repetition) become more likely to occur automatically. The activity of our brain becomes patterned by repetition – what we pay attention to becomes more and more likely to continue to occur in our minds.

So if we want to think differently, rather than simply stopping our mental habits we need to create new ones, by focusing on two key things:

  1. First, we need to slow down our physical and psychological systems so that our thoughts and behaviours become more conscious and less automatic or reactive. When our bodies and minds are sped up and operating on automatic pilot we’re likely to continue to repeat old patterns of thinking and behaving which have become well trained over time
  2. Then from a calmer and less reactive mindset, we can develop of new ways of thinking and strengthen these new thought patterns through repetition. By consciously choosing and repeating new thoughts, we can develop new habits which can eventually replace the old ones.

A key factor here is that we first learn to relax and calm our bodies and minds, which enables the brain itself to operate in a less reactive and more receptive manner. From that calmer place we’re more likely to be able to think differently. And when we think differently, we have a chance to change our behaviours. And when our behaviours change, so too do the outcomes of those behaviours.

So for people with Eating Disorders meditation may be helpful in the following ways:

  • Learning to relax and feel a sense of calm in your body and mind
  • From that place of relaxation being able to interpret your bodies signals in a clearer way
  • Training yourself to be less reactive to things that happen around you
  • Creating new and beneficial ways of thinking to create new mental habits
  • Slowing down the reactivity patterns between thoughts and behaviours
  • Developing new attitudes, such as self-compassion and acceptance
  • Learning to live more peacefully in this body, in this moment.