We all have well-established patterns of thinking and acting that we fall into without conscious decision, a sort of autopilot. Some of these patterns work well for us, while others certainly don't. When it comes to the eating disorder, behaviors with food that aren't part of normal eating start to feel "normal" when a person has done them enough times. The more entrenched a person becomes in their eating disorder patterns the less aware they become. These behaviors become part of daily living.
Mindfulness allows a person the freedom to choose not to act on eating disorder thoughts. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says, "Such attention takes in whatever passes through awareness with impartiality, as an interested yet unreactive witness." The thoughts are just that – thoughts – nothing more. Having a thought does not mean that a person has to act on it. (Easier said than done, I know).
Goleman also says, "Self-awareness is not an attention that gets carried away by emotions, overreacting and amplifying what is perceived. Rather, it is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even amidst turbulent emotions." The eating disorder thrives on these turbulent emotions, promising relief from them if the behavior is carried out. For example, if ED can convince a person that they're fat and need to lose weight, the thought that weight loss must be pursued is enticing. The ED is preying on the person's feelings of inadequacy. Without self-awareness the ED behaviors are carried out. However, with mindfulness the person can observe the ED thoughts, acknowledge the feelings of inadequacy, and choose not to act on it. The feeling, while uncomfortable, will eventually pass.
Mindfulness is a skill, which means that it takes practice and patience to develop it. Practicing awareness of thoughts can be truly transformative. Sometimes I ask clients to practice awareness of their ED thoughts by writing them down as a way to externalize them and separate from them. By intentionally practicing this level of awareness the ED becomes much more apparent and easier to distinguish from their own true thoughts.
Try this simple exercise – sit comfortably in a quiet place and set the timer on your phone for 5 minutes. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then turn your attention inward to your thoughts. Notice the thoughts as they arise, as if they are clouds in the sky. No need to react to them, just observe. As your mind wanders, return to awareness. This will likely feel like the longest 5 minutes of your life the first few times you do it, but it does get easier.
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose,in the present moment non-judgmentally. — Jon Kabatt-Zinn