Contemplative Practices for Eating Recovery

Dr. David Wiss

August 18, 2022

Mental Health

Scientific studies have shown that specific disciplined practices, when sustained over time, can lead to greater levels of awareness, and even improve mental health conditions such as stress, depression, and anxiety [1–3]. Are you curious how to stop stress eating? This article has some guidance for you. Paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues is one of the best ways to improve your eating habits.

Contemplative practices can cultivate tolerance and compassion and thereby contribute to individual and population health improvements. Contemplative practices can allow us to notice the difference between stressed and relaxed states. Relaxed states are optimal for digestion, which is why we call it rest and digest. Stressed states are often referred to as fight or flight, or freeze. The body is registering a threat and biological resources are allocated to managing that threat rather than healing itself. Many people who stress eat benefit greatly from slowing things down.

Contemplation comes from the Greek word, theoria – translated as a passion and dedication to understanding the nature of reality. We’re so overwhelmed by stimulation and distractions in our world today that we’re trained not to pause, not to question, and not to go deep within. We’re inundated with tasks, and the “doing” leads to a loss of our “being.” It’s no surprise that incidence rates of generalized anxiety disorder are rising.

Contemplative practices invite the self-awareness to objectively and mindfully be present for our thoughts. One of the best ways to begin contemplative practices is to spend more time in nature. When was the last time you had a meal outside? This is one way to work on Mindful Eating and Soulful Eating practices.

Contemplative practices should be utilized in culturally meaningful ways. Deep contemplation of self, environment, and spirit can raise the awareness that human beings are connected to a greater whole. We are nature.

Separation from one another is an illusion that restricts us to our personal desires and affections for persons that bolster our egoic minds. No one is exempt from being human. Many spiritual paths describe a dissolution of ego that brings a new sense of peace and freedom, which is particularly important when feeling stressed.

Now can be the perfect time to begin sharing meals with others rather than eating alone. If you’ve gotten more comfortable in the kitchen, invite some family, friends, or new acquaintances to share a meal. Take a risk. You may find that eating in a community spirit improves your relationship with food. Are you here for it?

Mindful awareness can result from a spiritual experience, either sudden and profound or developing slowly over time. But, of course, the ego quickly rebuilds itself, therefore daily practices are needed to sustain the sense of connectedness that so many of us seek. Common daily practices include:

Meditation

Which could be guided, silent, or even walking. Many people start with guided meditations and then find themselves called to sit in silence. Moving meditations such as long-distance walking can help the mind fall into that quiet place.

We recommend synchronizing your movement to breathing. Try four or five steps per inhale and four or five steps per exhale. Be less concerned with the quantity of this experience and more concerned with the quality. Meditation can reduce symptoms of anxiety for those who are ready for it.

Breathing or Breathwork

This modality of contemplative practice has become increasingly popular in recent years. There are so many possibilities here, with some much more aggressive than others. There are techniques that slow down the breath, and others that speed it up to hyper-oxygenate the blood. The practice of focusing on the breath can quiet the mind, which so many of us desperately need! A consistent breathing practice can improve your response to stress.

Yoga

So many different forms of yoga exist. We recommend vinyasa flow, emphasizing the synchronization of movement to breath. We also love kundalini yoga, which can now be accessed online. Experiment with different forms of yoga and find which practice resonates with you. Yoga can improve mental health!

Quality Time in the Natural World

Any form of nature can heal the human spirit. Hiking is a great place to start. Contemplative practices near moving bodies of water can foster a deep appreciation for what is. Try sitting by a river or a lake or an ocean and soak in the beauty of it all. Recent evidence suggests that as little as ten minutes of sitting or walking in a diverse array of natural settings positively impact mental well-being [4].

Prayer

Which does not need to be religious, and one does not need to “believe” to practice prayer. Prayer can be in the form of intention setting and using words to express positive energy generated from within. One can also pray without words. And for those that have an aversion to prayer, journaling is an excellent option.

Music and Chanting

Find some soothing tunes that you can sing along with. Many of my favorites are not even in English. The linguistic translation doesn’t even matter. It’s the energy embodied in the music that creates the shift. Access ancient wisdom while you are cooking meals and practice mindful eating.

Developing a Practice

It might be helpful to ask to feel more at home in the body that you currently live in and envision yourself having joyful and soulful meals. Start with one minute of slow breathing through your nose and then meditate on a peaceful song of your choice. And then develop additional practices from there.

And then keep this practice up until you find yourself doing it automatically. Don’t worry if you miss an evening or morning. Keep at it and watch the process unfold. For people with anxiety, this is a crucial ingredient in lifestyle medicine. The best diet for anxiety is the one that includes contemplative practices. These are sure to eventually improve your relationship with food.

References
1. Bruce MA, Jeffers KS, Robinson JK, Norris KC. Contemplative Practices: A Strategy to Improve Health and Reduce Disparities. Int J Environ Res Pu. 2018;15(10):2253.
2. Cushing RE, Braun KL. Mind–Body Therapy for Military Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review. J Altern Complementary Medicine. 2018;24(2):106–14.
3. Abbott RA, Whear R, Rodgers LR, Bethel A, Coon JT, Kuyken W, et al. Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy in vascular disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. J Psychosom Res. 2014;76(5):341–51.
4. Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ERB, Madsen CG, Shelley SP, Sachs NA. Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front Psychol. 2020;10:2942.