People are healthiest when their mind, body and spirit are integrated. Unfortunately, eating disorders often fracture these connections. Full and lasting recovery happens when we heal and reintegrate all aspects of ourselves. Medical and nutritional stabilization heal the body, while therapy and psychiatry restore the mind. Healing the spirit happens through the practice of spirituality.
Spirituality is something people often recognize but have difficulty defining. Here is how I understand it. First, spirituality includes all the ways we connect with our deepest, truest self – the part we often call “spirit.” Second, spirituality includes all the ways that we connect from that deepest self, beyond ourselves, to something bigger. For some people, that’s God, while for others it might be the universe, nature, an ideal, a sense of common humanity or ultimate reality.
Spirituality has a complex relationship with eating disorders. It can be a resource for recovery and help combat the eating disorder, but it’s also possible for the eating disorder to replace or take advantage of it. Understanding the factors involved can help ensure that spirituality – should you choose to consider it as a recovery resource – becomes a positive force in your healing.
First, what can sometimes be the downside of incorporating spirituality in the recovery process – these are the ways eating disorders can hinder spirituality, or use spirituality to hinder recovery:
- Eating disorders can seem like a path to spiritual fulfillment. They offer an identity and purpose, and can make you believe that you need them for worth, meaning, acceptance, control and peace. Unfortunately, none of these things can be truly achieved through an eating disorder.
- Eating disorders block authentic spiritual experiences. By causing emotional numbness and preoccupation with food, eating disorders alienate people from their true selves – their spirits. Spiritual practices involving body awareness and/or food become stressful, and guilt can make people avoid spirituality altogether.
- Eating disorders can use spiritual values to justify disordered behaviors. For example, idealizing self-sacrifice makes restriction seem like moral self-control, while overeating can be seen as greedy. Guilt and a negative self-image can also prompt attempts to atone through disordered behaviors, which become ways to seek purity or virtue
- Eating disorders can cause people to give up on spirituality out of despair. As eating disorders progress – and particularly following relapse – people can lose hope and have difficulty believing that freedom is possible – or even that life has meaning.
Don’t be discouraged – I have seen first-hand the effect that spirituality offers to individuals pursuing recovery. It really is an amazingly powerful and important resource for recovery!
- Spirituality can reconnect people with their authentic selves. By bringing people into contact with the deepest and truest part of who they are, spirituality reconnects them with a sense of self that is separate from the eating disorder. It reminds people of their values, reorients them to what is truly important and helps them connect with others authentically
- Spirituality offers ways to cope with distress. Practices like meditation, prayer and inspirational texts or music can help people find inner peace, accept what is and let go of the need for control. These practices foster faith and trust, are a source of courage when things are hard and a way to tap into joy and gratitude even in the midst of hardship.
- Spiritual growth can lead to symptom improvement. It reduces depression, anxiety and relationship issues while improving physical and psychological health. Concrete changes can be seen in cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning, along with the brain’s structure and function. It can even make other parts of treatment more effective!
- Spirituality can put the eating disorder out of a job. With time, spirituality can bring a lasting sense of inherent worth, and foster connections with others. It offers a sense of being at home in the world, and in one’s body. It contributes to a sense of meaning and purpose and directs one’s energies in creative rather than destructive ways. In other words, it frees people from the need for an eating disorder as a source of control, identity, meaning or belonging.
Whatever spirituality means to you, I invite you to consider making it part of your recovery plan. Talk with people in your life about how your sense of spirit has impacted and been impacted by your eating disorder, and make a point to reconnect with that part of you. Even if you can’t feel it right now, it’s in there waiting to bring you connection, peace and maybe even joy.
If you are having a hard time connecting your mind, body and spirit, we are here to help you.
Natalie Hill, LICSW, M.Div., is a clinician in Walden’s residential program. Ms. Hill’s professional interests include Narrative Therapy and innovations in Eating Disorder treatment.