Behind the Veils of Eating Disorders – A Connection to Spirituality

June 6th, 2021 by dayat No comments »

What does it mean to be “nourished?” To many, the idea of nourishment is associated with the provision of sustenance to the body, mainly in the form of food and water. Such a Westernized conceptualization ignores the fact that one’s mind, spirit and body all need to be nourished in order to survive and thrive. The mind, body, and spirit are intimately connected, and an individual must provide nourishment to all aspects of the self to attain feelings of being alive and full. Spirituality is not a unitary concept. Rather, it encompasses three aspects. Spirituality on an individual level relates to the connection with one’s inner self, that is, how one nourishes their own individual soul and fulfills their life and universal purpose. However, this inner spirituality needs to arise in conjunction with a spiritual connection to others, satisfying the human need for interpersonal relationships, as well as a larger ‘cosmic’ spirituality that bring awareness to and links us to the greater universe we are a part of. This process is slow, and the journey towards a sense of spiritual fullness can span decades and lifetimes. This article will explore the journey an eating disordered individual takes when developing her mind, body, and spirit, and the role eating disorders may play in understanding one’s greater purpose in life and learning how to achieve true and long lasting nourishment.

One may often ask, “Why did I get an eating disorder?” What many don’t realize is that eating disorders are not random unfortunate occurrences but in fact have a purpose. In many instances, the eating disorder is symbolic of a difficulty in finding other more satiating ways to deal with important needs and emotional issues, some of which may not be accessible to awareness. As well, eating disordered clients typically will be resistant to giving up their eating disordered behaviour because they believe it makes them exceptional and unique, providing an identity when they are confused about their own. In this sense, the eating disorder serves as a mask while an individual attempts to figure out their own true identity and purpose in life, covering a true hunger for meaning about where one belongs. When individuals are ready to confront these underlying issues, they first need to recognize, confront, and heal their eating disordered behaviours by re-feeding and slowly re-nourishing their mind. Working with a therapist aware of the role that an eating disorder plays in self-transformation, one is provided with the opportunity to learn how to feel ‘full’ in their mental and spiritual lives as well. It can be very scary for an individual to accept and acknowledge their spirituality, because it means confronting greater issues about death and the cycle of life. From this standpoint, an eating disorder is a transition point on a spiritual quest, serving as a catalyst to explore what one needs to feel fulfilled in their mind and spirit. As the following case study shows, the better question to ask is, “How can I learn and grow from my eating disorder?”

Jennifer was a white, well-educated, upper class young woman who battled with anorexia for seven years. In her work in therapy, she was at first indignant to the idea that there was more to her eating disorder than counting calories and wanting to ‘lose 5 pounds.’ Over the next couple of years, we worked on both the physical and emotional components of her eating issues, endeavouring to understand the goals underlying her eating disordered behaviour. In this case, Jennifer’s eating disorder was a way for her to regulate her internal emotional state, that is, the anxiety associated with experiencing feelings that scared her and that she didn’t understand. By controlling her food intake, she was able to focus on something else besides how she felt lost in the world and didn’t know where she fit in. By remaining extremely thin, she felt as if she could remain like a little girl and thus avoid having to confront her true purpose in life. Using therapeutic techniques meant specifically to reconnect the mind and body and spirit, including Reiki, Yoga and other body oriented therapies that will be described in more detail below, Jennifer not only returned to a healthy body weight, but also realized the importance of nourishing her mind and spirit, and learned to experience and accept her emotions without resorting to eating disordered behaviour as a coping mechanism. By exploring the issues pertaining to why she started restricting her food intake, she came to the realization that she maintained her physical hunger as a way to maintain congruence with her more intense spiritual hunger. Through meditation, Jennifer became aware that the way to attain inner spiritual nourishment was to strengthen her spiritual connection with others. She realized her purpose in life was to help other people with eating disorders, and that her own eating issues would enable her to understand and truly help others who also felt lost in their bodies or present lives. Jennifer has begun to help others on the path to healing, and no longer feeling starved spiritually, has been able to maintain her recovery.

How can other individuals, like Jennifer, learn to re-connect their mind, body, and spirit? There are a multitude of experiential therapeutic techniques, many of which can be used in combination, that can help an individual to heal their body and to grow spiritually. The therapist in these situations can serve as the individual’s healer and spiritual community, helping to engender feelings of connection with another being and gently guiding the client to her own mindfulness and spiritual awareness.

It has been widely noted across multiple psychological orientations, including Adlerian psychology, that one’s early developmental experiences play a critical role in how an individual forms internalized perceptions of the self and others. These early relationship experiences remain with us as we further develop into adulthood, and become the basis of the internal scripts that we use to guide our thoughts and behaviours in our daily lives, particularly in our interactions with others. For example, an individual who had self-critical and restricting parents would mistakenly learn from this relationship that she is constantly being judged and is inferior and undeserving. As we react in response to our environment, such a perception may be internalized, with the individual coming to believe that she is not worthwhile and does not deserve to feel “full,” and may aim to restrict herself in any way she can. This perspective will later be played out externally, fuelling maladaptive and destructive life goals, by being self-critical and engaging in restricting towards the self. Not only do such developmental experiences make one feel worthless and unloved, but also will likely precipitate eating disordered behaviour.

Psychodrama is an ‘action’ oriented technique developed by J.L. Moreno. Its main tenets involve the therapeutic re-enactment and role playing of influential and important ‘scenes,’ or events in an individual’s life, rather than only talking about them. For example, early aversive parental experiences may be re-enacted, highlighting the influence of interpersonal relationships in one’s life and the thought and belief patterns arising from such interactions. Props may be used to facilitate these mini-dramas, and empty chairs may also be used to represent people to whom the client needs to express herself. Such techniques help an individual step back from the salient scene and take the perspective of an observer, which often can provide more insight.By acting out in psychodrama, an arena for one’s internal dramas can be brought to consciousness and expressed in the external world, bringing to awareness underlying reasons for one’s thoughts and actions and correcting psychologically disruptive and/or mistaken internalizations and beliefs. In this sense, psychodrama can be a means to spontaneously and creatively express one’s emotions, inner voice and to tell one’s life story, in addition to expressing any desires, fears, and deeper questions. The use of the body in psychodrama to relay one’s inner world can help to connect the mind and body, and can provide a cathartic release of physical and emotional tension. Psychodrama is advantageous because it can be done in both an individual and group setting, which can help an individual feel supported. This provides an opportunity to connect spiritually with other people and to view one’s experiences from another perspective. In short, psychodrama can help an individual to recognize their feelings and give meaning to their internal experiences in a more concrete and reality-oriented form.

None the less, it is important to recognize that some individuals experiencing an eating disorder will have issues verbalizing their emotions in psychodrama. Thus, it may be beneficial to explore other art forms, like painting and sculpture, that can express thoughts and feelings in images and symbols rather than words. Additionally, based on the premise that adaptations in bodily movement impact emotional and physical well-being, dance or movement therapy could also be used to bring an energized awareness to the experiences of the body that have emotional valence.Such techniques allow an individual to non-verbally symbolize their life journey and experiences and work to liberate one from their psychological distress. Regardless of the medium used, the important idea is that a creative experiential process is initiated. Summoning our creative potential and using our bodies and mind in an interconnected way can help us to move towards spiritual grounding by reconnecting us with the intangible creative force that controls and moves the universe.

While psychodrama can work to establish and nourish a stronger mind-body connection in an eating disordered client, the relationship between the body and spirit also needs to be healed and explored. Healing an eating disorder does not only entail a remission of symptoms, but also relates to the return to one’s authentic state of being. Often with eating disorders, the individual’s spirit is old, transferred across many lifetimes, but is inhabiting a young body. This disconnect between one’s chronological age and one’s spiritual age can be distressing and isolating for such individuals, and can create an unconscious but insatiable disdain for one’s body that feels like it “doesn’t fit.” Combined with questions relating to one’s greater purpose in life, such a state can sensitize these individuals to an eating disorder. Thus, it is important for an individual in this situation to learn to balance and harmonize the spirit and body, and several body orientedtherapies can be used to facilitate this, including Reiki.

Reiki, Gentle touch and other body oriented energy therapies involve a series of hand positions on an individual’s body that engenders the smooth and nurturing flow of positive energy reciprocally from the body to the spirit. This allows reconnection to one’s true spiritual core, and can help to facilitate the re-awakening of feelings of warmth and care towards one’s body. These feelings of warmth can be particularly important to individuals with eating disorders, who may have not experienced warmth and compassion from significant others in the developmental stages of their life. As a result, they do not have warm memories of healing touch during times of distress to provide soothing feelings of safety and nurturing. The practice of Reiki in a safe and soothing place of healing can re-create and awaken this lacking but critical relational experience in individuals, and help individuals to feel worthy of nourishing warmth.

While the techniques above usually require therapist facilitation, there are certain practices an individual with an eating disorder can engage in outside of the therapeutic milieu. Yoga and Chi Quong for example, are of an eastern tradition and have been suggested as a useful technique for clients with eating disorders looking to foster inner peace, and working to reinvent and gain awareness of the body. By using different postures to experience the body in new and different ways, attention is focused inwardly towards tolerating and recognizing how the body feels, rather than how the body looks (Boudette, 2006). Deep breathing and chanting that accompanies the Yoga and Chi Quong practice can help to facilitate a connection with the spiritual side of the self. Additionally, certain yoga postures may be slightly uncomfortable, and yoga teaches one to tolerate this discomfort. This parallels the discomfort that will result during the recovery phase of an eating disorder, when one is learning to re-feed the self, and can serve as a model for enduring uncomfortable feelings (Boudette, 2006). Thus, yoga is like a metaphor for the healing process from an eating disorder, and facilitates peace and awareness in the body. Which body-based therapy is best to use, depends on the individual client, but it is important to let the client take the lead towards their own spiritual journey and recovery process.

Many individuals have taken the journey towards greater spiritual development, exploring the underlying connections and purpose in their current and past lives. While an eating disorder is one way for an individual to discover and deal with these issues, other self harm behaviours, including addiction, may also manifest themselves as a mechanism to cope with spiritual emptiness and therefore facilitate its growth. Although it might feel counterintuitive to view an eating disorder, or other psychopathology, as a purposeful event in one’s life, it is important to acknowledge the role an eating disorder plays on the path to attaining mental and spiritual nourishment and learning to love the body. In a sense, physical nourishment is a metaphor for the deeper hunger relating to finding one’s place in the universe and finding one’s spiritual core. Therapists should work with individuals to heal their eating disordered behaviour and symptoms, but also to functionally explore the reasons underlying their eating disorder and how this relates to deeper issues in spirituality, including the sense of spiritual emptiness in one’s present life. One should not expect to wake up one day and “be cured” as recovery from an eating disorder is ongoing work. However, as one explores in more depth the non-physical reasons for their pathological eating behaviour through techniques that bring awareness and compassion to both the mind and body, the experience becomes less like ‘work’ and more like a fruitful quest to attain spiritual fulfillment and a balanced mind, body, and spirit.