Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness for Beginners, is “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Mindfulness can be traced to Buddhist origins and the practice commonly referred to as “mindful eating” is an offshoot, involving slowing down and paying attention to everything related to eating. Noticing how hungry you are when you begin to eat, paying attention to your cravings, taking note of the sight, texture, and taste of the food, eating slowly, savoring each bite, and noticing how full and satisfied you are from your meal are all examples of mindful eating.
Mindful eating is an important first step in terms of addressing overeating behaviors (mindless or excessive snacking, overeating at meals or binge eating.) But by itself, it isn’t always enough to permanently curb overeating. A mindfulness practice that directs our attention not only to our eating, but to the emotions, bodily sensations, needs and thoughts that drive our eating behavior, will help us build the self-care skills we need to give our overeating the boot once and for all.
In addition to building skills, this type of mindfulness practice has the potential to rewire our brains. By developing and honing the ability to focus our attention on our internal world, we stimulate the growth of areas of the brain that are crucial to mental health. And in so doing, we actually resculpt our neural pathways, making it easier to regulate our behaviors, set effective limits, and make healthier food selections in the future.
An added benefit of this type of mindfulness practice is that as we learn to suspend our judgments of what we observe, we develop and strengthen a compassionate and supportive Inner Voice.
The best time to try this mindfulness practice is when you’re experiencing distress and want to grab something to eat. These are the times when you’re most aware of unpleasant emotions and corresponding bodily sensations. You can also practice this type of mindfulness when you want to snack even though you’re not hungry or when you’re already full and want to continue eating. Another good time to practice is when your thoughts are self-defeating or obsessive, whether or not you want to grab comfort food.
Here are six steps to get you started:
Step 1. Pull away from your busy world and find a quiet place where you can be alone for 15 minutes or longer. Sit upright in a comfortable chair and ground yourself—feel your feet planted firmly on the floor and your rear end in the seat. Take a few long, slow, deep breaths, noticing both the inhalation and exhalation. Research shows that just the act of paying attention to your breath can regulate your nervous system and calm you.
Step 2. Ask yourself “What am I feeling in this moment?” Pay attention to both emotions and bodily sensations. See if you can identify a number of emotions (sad, mad, glad, afraid) and sensations (muscle tension, nervous energy, an ache or itch.) Remember not to judge what you are noticing—all emotions and sensations are valid.
Step 3. Access a supportive Inner Voice and Validate your feelings. Say something to yourself like “It’s okay to feel sad.” Or “It makes sense to feel worried about that.” Or “Of course your muscles are tight—you’re extremely frustrated and overwhelmed.” If you haven’t had much practice building this voice, it may feel awkward at first. Keep at it until it feels more natural. You’re learning to offer yourself the loving kindness and compassion you crave and deserve. You’re building your empathy muscle. And you’re learning how to calm and comfort yourself.
Step 4. Ask yourself “What am I needing in this situation? Perhaps you’re needing comfort, soothing, calming, reassurance, understanding, validation, encouragement, hope, connection or rest. See if you can get clear on your needs. Take your time. Needs aren’t always as clear as feelings.
Step 5. Using your supportive Inner Voice, offer yourself what you are needing. Say something to yourself like “It’s okay to need validation and reassurance. I’m here with you and together we’ll get through this difficult situation.” Or “I understand what you are going through and I know how exhausted you are feeling—let’s plan some quality down-time.” Or, “Yes, you won’t be able to find a partner over-night but I’m here with you always. You are never alone.”
Step 6. Catch and Reframe any Self-defeating thoughts that surface. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you may notice negative, critical, judgmental or hopeless thoughts such as “I’ll never find anyone to connect with” or “There is no way with my work schedule that I can carve out any down time.” These types of thoughts can easily derail you and lead right back to unpleasant feelings and food cravings. Try reframing them with more calming or energizing thoughts, such as “In this moment, I choose to believe that there are people out there for me to connect with” or “I do have some vacation time built up—perhaps I can talk to my boss about taking a short break.”
Scientific discoveries of the last twenty years have demonstrated that even into old age, a regular mindfulness practice can change the physical structure of the brain, facilitating more adaptive responses and behaviors, and creating more resilience and well-being. In other words, it’s never too late to grow neural fibers and improve self-regulation. All of this translates into better handling of stress and less obsessive thinking and wayward eating.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of the 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and When Food Is Comfort. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to https://overeatingrecovery.com.
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